I’ve been wondering why feminism grabbed me so much the second time I looked, but not the first.
I remember feminism going on around me when I was a teenager. I had a vague idea it involved a lot of arguments about whether you should shave your legs or not. A couple of decades later, my daughter told me she’d had the impression for years that she couldn’t be a feminist because she likes dressing up, cooking and being a mum.
In the 70s, I couldn’t do feminism because I didn’t like dungarees. In the 80s, I couldn’t afford the ‘power dressing’ and then in latter years, I thought I couldn’t be a feminist because my partner was a bloke, and because the ‘feminists’ I saw on telly all seemed to spend their time making pointlessly rude and embarrassingly flirtatious swipes at men. And anyway, those somewhat boring organisations like the Fawcett Society and Labour Women’s Network were constantly bashing on about whether female execs in London were earning enough tens of thousands more than me, yet.
And then Stonewall tried to get women’s legal rights repealed. A new kind of women’s campaign (new to me) came along. I was so angry, so involved, and so excited, talking to so many great women, helping to put together ideas for the Women’s Place UK manifesto, getting involved with the Women’s Liberation Conference, and to top it all, I’d discovered FiLiA, with its glorious weekend every year of women singing, women cooking, women dancing, running businesses, making friends, building communities and doing politics, women escaping and traveling the world as fugitives, then coming together at last, singing, cooking, dancing, making friends, running businesses, building communities and doing politics.
People ask why women get so ‘obsessed’ with the sex based rights campaign, why we never ‘come down off it’. Well you know, there’s more to it than that. For those of us who were relatively new to feminism, the women we met on the way told us about real feminism, and Woman’s Place, and all the other organisations the benighted like to call ‘anti-trans hate groups’ set women’s worlds on fire. It’s VERY exciting. (Apparently, last time around they called the women’s groups ‘anti-men hate groups’.)
Read Julie Bindel’s REALLY exciting new book, and discover proper feminism. As she explains, the stuff that went mainstream – liberal feminism, they call it, IS boring. Radical feminism isn’t feminism only more so, it’s the growing, sustaining root of feminism. In manifestation, it’s any aspect of feminism that’s not acceptable to the establishment.
‘We don’t want half the seats at the table,’ says Bindel, ‘we want to break the table.’
Feminism is about rescuing and standing with fugitives, it’s about learning and teaching, about fighting back, about community politics and addressing the problems that are so big mainstream politicians barely dare touch them.
Buy the book, go to FiLiA. Get angry, get serious, get excited. You can sing, dance, make friends, dress up and cook as you go if you want to. You can also make up your own mind as to whether you shave your legs or not. You decide, it doesn’t matter – but you might have some interesting conversations over coffee about why mainstream society thinks such things matter so much.
Just read the book, in fact read all her books, and her journalism. I am!
All white people are racist; all men are sexist, racism and sexism are systems that can exist and oppress without the presence of a single person with racist or sexist intentions; sex is not biological but exists on a spectrum; saying you are not racist, sexist or homophobic is proof that you are; language can be literal violence, and some opinions must be silenced for the safety of others; denial of “gender identity” is killing people; a homeless woman in danger, or a mother in fear for her children, who says things have never been so bad needs to “check her privilege”; the wish to remedy disability, obesity or poor diet is hateful, and a sign that you do not allow the right of disabled people to exist…
I expect you agree with, or made an effort to agree with, quite a lot of that but I expect, somewhere in that highly virtuous and well-meaning paragraph, you had a ‘hang on a minute’ moment.
I have been reading a book that’s a wee bit off track for a socialist, near radical feminist such as myself, a book that recommends liberalism over revolutionary socialism at every turn and, I am aware, this will probably be the point where any self-identified Social Justice Warrior will stop reading my blog. On the other hand, if you are one of the many bemused socialists, revolutionary or otherwise, who have been avoiding certain topics in politics in recent years because they have become so immediately toxic that walking on egg-shells just isn’t enough to avoid the rows, this book is for you.
When does a theory become an ideology?
“Cynical Theories” by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay explores in detail how the rigid, cult-like tenets of Post Modern Critical Scholarship have got the left by the throat, and why the ‘Critical Theory’ doctrines make every disagreement into a disaster, and every debate into a passionate row, and what we might do about it.
When does an ideology become a cult?
Like most people, I have laughed at the claims of ‘political correctness’ over the years, and also on the other hand, scoffed at those statements that start ‘I’m not a racist but…’ like most people, I cheered on the gay liberation movement in its day, and the glorious summer of statue-demolishing and anti-racist education brought to us by BLM … but that is not nearly enough to satisfy your Social Justice Warrior. You must be 100% aligned with all the principles of identity politics, or you are a problem in their eyes, someone to ‘cancel’ at every opportunity.
How do you counteract a cult?
I first picked up a clue as to why this disease had so eaten away at the left from a Counterfire presentation a while back, that began to explain how Identity Politics sits in opposition to class-analysis but it didn’t go so far as to hand me a road-map. This book does, and I warmly recommend it to anyone who understands the need to re-unite the left, and who can see why we won’t do that while we have activists wedded to the power-grid that rigidly defines what many call the ‘oppression Olympics’, activists who will tell the most desperate, downtrodden citizen imaginable that, if he happens to be a white, cis-het male, then he is an oppressor, and he must bow to the every utterance of a citizen whose intersectional standpoint happens to be lower on the grid than his.
It is adherence to this power-grid view of oppression that (to give this week’s example) leads the CEO of Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre to decide that ‘re-educating’ women who feel the need of all-female company after a traumatic attack is a priority.
So – keep your radical and revolutionary views by all means, and argue with any pages in the book that are too softy-centry in their suggested solutions, but do read the book if you want to understand where all this vitriol, this screechy dogma and no-platforming and these claims of ‘literal violence’ when disagreed with stem from; if you want to understand all these ‘name and shame’, ‘withdraw the whip’, accusations of ‘hate speech’, this-and-that-o-phobia and attempts at show trials came from, and how to diffuse them; if you want to help us return to a world where it is possible to disagree on individual issues, to stand in comradely opposition, negotiate conflicts of rights, and still stand on the same picket line in the name of socialism and solidarity against the very real, class-based, property-and-money based oppression of neoliberalism, read this book.
Criticisms of Helen Joyce’s book 1. Is it antisemitic? and 2. She didn’t say who dun it!
Conspiracy hunters have had a bad attack of not seeing the wood for the trees. It’s like this…
I was told in college that if you see an exam question that asks what caused something, it’s a trick question. When significant events change the world, there is rarely one single cause. There will be a series of potential causes, that flow together and can become a trend that seems like an unstoppable force. We know that, when we think about it but there are always many voices raised demanding to know who or what ‘did it’.
Helen Joyce, in her most excellent book demystifying the global struggle over ‘the sex and gender issue’, has demonstrated and analysed a horrific trend which has proved very difficult to halt. The book got rave reviews, and the ultimate accolade in current politics – accusations of antisemitism. The latter is supremely significant because when lazy political activists run out of arguments, cries of antisemitism are always the fall-back. (See advance disclaimer #1 at the end of this post.)
The only reality-based criticisms I have seen of Joyce’s book is that she didn’t say ‘who dun it’. Those looking for the names of the super-rich manipulators they could blame for all this were a bit disappointed. Joyce does give the names of three hugely wealthy donors to gender-identity projects, but doesn’t put all the blame on them.
That is because very few things are entirely down to one person, group or organisation. I know it’s annoying, but life just isn’t that tidy. Straightforward history A level questions generally start ‘What are the causes of…?’ or even ‘What are the main causes of…?’
And the reason for this blog post is that I think in the eager search for a huddle of billionaires to blame, many readers have actually missed Joyce’s clear demonstration of the main causes of the pernicious trend towards letting gender-identity ideology trump sex-based rights, and setting off flaming rows where ever the trend is opposed. The gender-identity mob have so far, successfully hidden behind ‘trans rights’ placards but when Joyce’s book climbed the bestsellers list, they saw she had blown their cover. That’s why they are shouting from the rooftops that Joyce is antisemitic.
The main causes of the ‘sex and gender’ conflict are patriarchy and male sexuality. Here’s how it works…
If you haven’t learned to see patriarchy at work, then you don’t know why feminism is needed. In a recent Labour Party meeting, I suggested including protection for women’s legal rights in a motion about trans rights. I agreed with the proposer of the motion that trans rights and women’s rights need not be mutually exclusive. Because so many people believe there is an inevitable conflict, I felt it would be wise to state support for both ideas, as laid down in the Labour Party manifesto, so we were absolutely clear that we needed to proceed according to good trade unionist, socialist practice, and find a way to frame both sets of rights that doesn’t bring them into conflict.
Angry counter-speakers told me my contribution was ‘unnecessary’ and ‘provocative’. The chair threw her neutrality in the bin and stated ‘I don’t need that protection!’ If those women ever find out why they were passionately shouting down their own legal rights, they will finally have recognised the pernicious influence of patriarchy. It makes everything that’s good for women look stroppy and unnecessary to the casual observer.
Patriarchy loves gender-identity ideology, and paints it as virtuous *because* it can be used to counter women’s rights. Going along with it gives you that warm feeling of swimming with the tide. It’s also very, very bad for women and girls.
In a patriarchal society, male sexuality is closely bound up with power, self-aggrandisement and the dark side of those things, which comes out as a sort of sexy submissiveness and faux victim behaviour. Because of those traits, there has always been a theme in male sexuality of cross-dressing, presenting as ‘drag queens’ and ‘pantomime dames’ who exhibit a ‘humour’ that consists of flirtatious misogyny. We all know this. Girls and women often react with bemusement but, as it is so eternally embedded in our culture, we just go ‘oh very well’.
I believe the main reason there is so much aggression towards Joyce’s book is that she includes a dispassionate history of males trying to present as women for a variety of strange reasons, and demonstrates how this characteristic fed the growing ‘transgender’ trend, and also how it added the wild-fire streak of misogyny and sex-based threats that run through all the ‘gender v sex’ and ‘trans rights’ campaigns.
I also believe that it is the aggressive and misogynistic demands of men like that (yeah, yeah, not all men – I know that) and the way our legal system automatically favours the aggressive male stance over the female, that has given the would-be gender-identity revolution its power.
That is why it has to be unravelled and understood before we can find a rational solution, with clear, legal protections for all concerned. It is clear to feminists that there are many victims of gender-identity ideology – lesbian, gay, autistic and traumatised children who have been confused and misdirected into blaming the shape of their bodies for their pain, trans-sexuals trying to live an unconflicted life (See advance disclaimer #2 below), lesbian and gay people who’ve seen their culture and services aggressively taken over by ‘queer’ people who demand to be seen as homosexual because they think they ‘really are’ the opposite sex, and the many, many women who are already victims of patriarchy – women in prisons, hostels, refuges and refugee centres, who desperately need the safety-net of women’s sex-based rights.
The fact that organisations like Stonewall were so oblivious to women’s needs that they decided calling for the complete erasure of sex-based rights was the quickest way through for trans rights is both proof that gender-identity ideology is built on patriarchal misogyny and a very clear demonstration of why that movement is so aggressive, so anti-women, and so prone to sex-based threats of violence. As Jeremy Corbyn’s former policy manager, Lachlan Stuart has demonstrated, there are many things we could do for trans people under the banner of ‘trans rights’ that do not conflict with women’s basic legal rights but, for some reason, he found it impossible to get organisations such as LGBT Labour to show any interest in those things – they just wanted – primarily and forcefully – to fight against women’s sex-based rights.
That, Your Honour, is demonstration enough that gender-identity ideology is misogyny at work.
[I have written two versions of the concluding paragraph – please pick the one that suits your politics]
The enemies of socialism and democracy are sexism, racism and classism. Those are notoriously the most powerful weapons of division used by capitalism (or if you think we’re really in a post-capitalist world, of ‘neoliberalism’). As a socialist, you have probably gone a fair way towards understanding racism and classism. To see the picture whole, you also need to understand sexism in its new and vicious form of gender-identity ideology. If you don’t understand it yet, please read Helen Joyce’s book. It’s by far the best analysis, and a very interesting read.
For concerned people who aren’t socialist
Most people know that we live in a sexist society. Many understand that that makes life very difficult for women and girls. This isn’t an isolated situation in one or two countries, or the result of a conspiracy by one or two billionaires. Gender-identity ideology, which seeks to make gender expression more important than biological sex is the latest and possibly most pernicious incarnation of sexism. If you don’t understand it yet, please read Helen Joyce’s book. It’s the best analysis I have seen so far, and a very interesting read.
Advance disclaimer #1: if someone says nasty things about Jewish people as a group, or deliberately hints at ‘Jewish conspiracies’ etc, they being are antisemitic. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the weaponisation of antisemitism accusations which is so often the last resort of political activists who have no logical argument for their policies.
Advance disclaimer #2: there are, and will be for as long as patriarchy rules, people who feel so utterly, painfully at odds with the gender-based requirements of the society around them that they change their bodies, their clothes and their names. They present, and attempt to live, as the opposite sex. Generally, when speaking frankly and confidentially, they know they are not really the opposite sex – they just feel more comfortable living that way. They are in no way culpable in any of this, they are no threat to women’s rights, and they deserve support and tolerance. Most feminists, because we know how pernicious patriarchy is, understand the pressures that brought those people to that situation, and do support and tolerate such people.
Socialism A, socialism B, and why everyone who was paralysed by despair on 13th December 2019 should be back in action by now...
The Ministry of Truth
We’ve always been very keen on throwing the term ‘Orwellian’ at anything we consider less than honest but in recent years, the term seems to apply more and more often. Last week (April 2021) a story broke which qualifies 100% – a firm of UK lawyers get the job of doctoring textbooks to suit the Israeli market
And reading that, I remembered that during the compilation of the recent report on racism (that found there wasn’t any) there had been talk of providing ‘the real truth’ to schools. Just trying to imagine what such a scheme would look like under our current government made my toes curl.
The impossibility of agreeing ‘the truth’ with the average citizen you meet in the street was a constant burning problem for Labour activists during the 2017 and 2019 election campaigns, not to mention during the nightmare of the Brexit referendum. The enormity, the impossibility, of that task in the face of a government and a mainstream media drifting ever further from reality is beginning to be discussed by relatively mainstream reporters and academics now, two years after That Terrible Day…
But, having had two years to get over the reeling horror of what happened to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, most socialist activists are probably beginning to see, as my comrades do, that we already knew we’d been beaten by 2019. We’d run the campaign in a state of denial, based on the fact that the media had spent the last two years telling us we’d lost when in fact we hadn’t, and so we completely failed to acknowledge reality when we really had lost.
So what happened to real socialism? Why could we not see the wood for the trees? There’s hardly anyone in the Labour Party who doesn’t claim to be a socialist: from the very best paid and most privileged members of the plap (as we took to calling the Parliamentary Labour Party after some of our more bruising experiences), right on down to the lowliest of activists out on the street between DWP maulings, ‘the grassroots’ helping out with Unite Community campaigns against Sports Direct and other exploiters — all insist that they are socialists. How can so many, so very different people, people absolutely at each other’s throats, think they’re socialists?
I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of socialism – or at least, there’s socialism, and a very convincing faux socialism that often takes its place. I found a good, clear definition of the distinction in Snakes and Ladders by Selina Todd. The subtitle of the book is ‘The Great British Social Mobility Myth’. Todd makes extensive use of the personal accounts collected in endeavours such as the Mass Observation Project
She demonstrates a change, over the generations, in the publicly perceived aims of socialism. She looks at early socialist projects, pre-Second World War, which tended to be local subscription schemes, co-ops where communities banded together to solve problems and help each other, thus reducing their reliance on the ‘power people’, the oppressors. Then she looks at later ones which tended to be more individualistic efforts to lift ‘high achievers’ into the middle classes. She follows the developing clash of these two ideas via conflicts in the Workers’ Education Association, over whether their work should centre community education projects for everyone, or whether they should focus on creating scholarships for ‘achievers’.
The problem gradually comes into focus. Clearly, lifting individuals out of the oppressed, working classes into the middle classes isn’t really socialism – you can’t lift everyone into the middle class. If that is your aim, what does ‘the middle’ rest on? Who is going to scrub the floors and wipe the arses? Do we discuss this thorny issue, or do we close our eyes and trumpet ever louder the catch-phrases of socialism B….?
Tony Blair was one of the more notorious proponents of ‘meritocracy’, enthusiastically espousing ‘equality of opportunity’, and mixing meritocracy with the wide-ranging benefits which generally come with a Labour government in a very enticing agenda which, for one-and-a-half terms of office, successfully covered a creeping privatisation that left us with our hospitals deeply in debt, school grounds being sold off and a range of other troubling developments including the over-riding horror of the Iraq War. A loss of socialist vision that more than justified Margaret Thatcher’s statement that New Labour was her greatest achievement.
But Blair was a socialist – and initially a very popular one. What happened?
A good source of detail on how ‘meritocracy’ works is Miseducation, by Diane Reay, which surveys stats and experiences of UK education from the very start of mass education, and discovers an unchanging strategy of using the majority of children as a buffer (collateral damage is the term she uses), the contrast that allows those bright achievers to be ‘top of the pile’. There were only ever so many grammar school places back in the 11-plus days, and middle class parents were always good at making sure their children got them. The few working class people who clawed their way into grammar schools often felt lost and defeated when they got there, cut off from their working class roots, not quite good enough for the alternatives… Comprehensives looked, for a while, like a solution to that but there was, eternally, the private school system sitting on top, limiting their efficacy; and even within those comprehensives, streaming systems recreated that hierarchical ladder for the ‘achievers’ to climb… and the corresponding snakes for others to slide down.
The now-proliferating academy businesses appear to be even more focused on this idea, with their competitive, motivational, aspirational straplines, and their quiet assurances to teachers that no-one will have to handle more than one of those problematic set 3 classes, where the kids all seem to have SEND or mental health issues: the latter translates, in some opinions, to kids who are angry, depressed and/or distressed – the ‘collateral damage’ – the necessary foil of the class system.
Those kids need rescuing – or they need to learn to rescue themselves. Is that a skill they’re going to learn in those schools?
Corbyn – a return to socialism A?
It was extremely hard to sell Corbyn’s version of socialism to everyone – it sold itself to pretty much everyone who actually met him but, strangely enough, it didn’t get an honest airing in the mainstream media, and the high-salaried, high-achievers in the Labour Party didn’t take to it too well. Nevertheless, team Corbyn kept him out on the road, meeting people in their tens of thousands, and good instincts led many, many people to recognise that the socialism of Jeremy Corbyn was something different, something that provided redress – as some analysts noted, Corbyn’s acknowledgement of ‘the left behind’ was key.
Corbyn wasn’t cheering people on to ‘rise above’ the herd, he was constantly calling for them to ‘stick together’, to ‘build the community’ and make socialism happen.
The one big Momentum call-out
Initially, the organisation Momentum became the instrument of the mass movement. When the plap made their first major attempt to nip Socialism A in the bud (an exercise now known as ‘the chicken coup’) they found the House of Commons surrounded by tens of thousands of – well, people – just people – responding to Momentum’s call to hold the line for Corbyn, chanting ‘for the many, not the few’ and ‘no-one left behind’.
It was instinctive, it was right (I think) but, as many lefty commentators said after the Terrible Day (13th December 2019) the majority of the movement lacked background knowledge, it lacked political nous, and was completely un-leadable. It scared the heck out of Jon Lansman who, at that time, considered himself to be in charge of Momentum. It gets very personal here but it seems to me that from that day on, Lansman back-tracked furiously, aiming for his own natural home which was most definitely Socialism B. His methods came from the secret weapon of the right at the time – Identity Politics.
The Politics of Divide and Rule
Where Socialism A always centres the class struggle, aiming to unravel the ‘meritocracy’ view in favour of community and class action, Socialism B will reply with divide and rule – sometimes centring the ‘high achievers’ to create an elite, other times centring a minority competing in ‘the oppression Olympics’ – for example, look at who was getting kicked out of the Labour Party during the struggle to get Corbyn into number ten – top of the list was Jewish Socialists – especially black and female Jewish socialists – accused of anti-semitism.
Were there really hordes of anti-semites in the Labour Party, or was this an attempt to use one section of the Jewish community against another? And then came the leaks, and the signs of racism and sexism running through backroom party bureaucracy.
It was Momentum that scuppered the CLGA left slate system that the new, mass membership relied on to compensate for our lack of political experience and literacy, and it was Momentum in general, Jon Lansman in particular – who did the damage, first by throwing the anti-semitism bomb at Pete Wilsman in the middle of an NEC election, and more recently by making sectarian demands of CLGA candidates that exacerbate the divide between gender-critical feminism and the trans rights movement.
Lots of lobbying or lots of people?
How do you heal those divides? The two styles of socialism can be seen in the choice all political movements make between foregrounding community- and movement-building or foregrounding lobbying. The lack of experience of many of us newcomers to party politics led to an expectation that if only we could get our particular case in front of Corbyn or MacDonnell, all the problems would fall away. Many sections of the movement attempted to build and lobby, but there was always too much belief in the ‘Corbyn will sort it out’ feeling. I suspect that it is, even now, slowing the development of the current Corbyn Project, as too many sign-ups sit at home waiting for Jeremy to work his magic.
It was the failure of that misplaced faith that led us all to slump into despair as the election results came in on 13th December 2019, and Corbyn resigned as party leader. It was the same failure of faith that led so many campaigns to wander off down their separate, and often antagonistic, paths since then. Failure of faith in ourselves as a collective. It’s time to pull those paths back together – we need to recognise truth speakers such as Corbyn, to listen to them and honour them, but not expect them to work the magic. We need to know that we can campaign side-by-side with people of different opinions, but we need to be politically literate enough to know whether they are real socialists. I don’t know if the Labour Party itself is any use to us now, but nor do I expect Mr Magic Corbyn to start a new party.
What we need to do is a lot more homework, then we need to get out there and make sure more people really understand what happened, and what is happening. Keep the conversations going until enough people understand… and as so often happens, I was just trying to work out how to say all that, when I realised someone just had.
I’m not sure how long the share token for ‘The Truth’ will stay live but, if it’s stopped working when you get to this point, try searching for Caitlin Johnstone and the-problem-isnt-human-nature…
Homework, set by members of my CLP 4 years ago: Read Tony Blair’s biography, and write us a piece for the young Corbynites who want to know just who this beast in the shadows is, and how, if he’s good and gone, he’s managed to leave this handful of people in key executive positions all over the party who are so damned good at out-playing the party’s every attempt to change.
I rejected the challenge as not worth the pain – but then happened to find a copy of the book in a junk shop, when we’d jumped on a train for a jolly day out shopping. Oh god! That psycho face gimlet-staring out of the cover pic! It was only 50p, so I caved in and said “oh alright then.”
Even the shop lady thought I was mad. “You won’t learn anything – he’ll only be bigging himself up,” she said, as I handed her the 50p.
It’s called A Journey. What with that, and the gimlet stare on the cover, I decided to discard the dust jacket on the train home. I could cope with the plain blue cover underneath – or so I thought. I nearly chickened out and left the whole book on the train when I realised it had TONY BLAIR embossed on the spine in 2-inch high letters, which fellow passengers were staring at in horror.
If ever the first line in a book was perfectly prescient, this one is. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: “When it was first suggested that I write this book, Bob Barnett, lawyer, friend and negotiator extraordinaire, expertly steered the negotiations that brought me to Random House.” There you have it – Tony Blair in a nutshell. Never mind policies, never mind principles, the one and only quality he notices in everyone and every event, is the potential for effective manipulation – for winning. I had a quick flick through. My eye was caught by the nature of the captions on the photo pages. Here’s an example:
The words of praise are extraordinary – “operative”, “superbly attuned” – remember how the phrase “on message” kept turning up in political columns when Blair was “team building”? Remember how, when the 2015 Labour leadership election was a three-horse race, the three candidates were shunting and shifting, playing chess for the “winning message”, and nobody was unusually stirred… Until a forth contender came along, one who messed up the chess-game by just saying what he thought, regardless of whether it was popular, or part of a pre-agreed “message”. The membership scented truth, and they were in the mood for it. From that moment on, despite the other candidates’ attempts to adapt, taking hasty lessons in appearing unrehearsed, Corbyn was the man: too old and too relaxed to fit the conventional model but, unbelievably, unstoppably popular – because in certain circumstances, people are ferociously loyal to truth, once they’ve spotted some.
Looking at the photos of Blair’s chosen inner circle, I am reminded of a famously machine-oriented councillor I came across at the Labour South East regional party conference. He got on fine with the group he and I were both working in that was about winning council elections – some fine, efficient advice on campaigning… but he was the only one at conference who took to the main stage and advised a (largely Corbynite – as the majority of members are) audience to “stay off social media, it’s just an echo chamber.” The advice was greeted with a stony silence. We knew where and how the membership at large got one up on the Blairite machine, and why he wanted it to stop. If he noticed that manipulative tactics stick out a mile these days, he didn’t show it but then, come to think of it, he didn’t show his own feelings once, all weekend. Educated for politics, groomed, trained and funded for his position, he is a text-book example of Blair’s machine men.
Pondering this, my eyes strayed to the page opposite the photos, where Blair is describing the role of Foreign Secretary, and explaining why it’s the job everyone wants. “…you basically spend your time with people who are polite to you…generally dispensing goodwill and opinions to those who seem relatively keen to receive them.” Sounds like the queen’s job to me – aren’t politicians supposed to be doing important, responsible things? Not the Foreign Secretary apparently – “…Not for you the horny handed sons of toil badgering you over fuel prices, or complaining about the government’s clearly ill-motivated refusal to spend money on this service or that, the minutiae of road schemes…” Is that, then, the root of the resentment Blairites hold for the Corbyn/McDonnell movement? Is it that they hold the people and their need for services in such total contempt they resent Corbyn’s expectation that all politicians lower themselves to actually running the country and providing services?
Not getting off to a very good start, this book review of mine, is it? Let’s see how Tony’s getting on: INTRODUCTION “Most such memoirs are, I have found, rather easy to put down. So what you see here is not a conventional description of who I met or what I did…” That, Tony, is pretty much what the lady in the bookshop said. “There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that’s me.” Well okay, on the subject of Tony Blair’s experience of being Prime Minister, I suppose he has a point but is he going to keep the idea under control, and not write as if he is god of the real world? “I describe, of course, the major events of my time, but I do so through the eyes of the person taking the decisions in relation to them…” – The person? Doesn’t this sound a tad like the memoir of a dictator? – “…I hope it is fair.” I doubt it, old son.
I will try to be fair. But that’s my problem, not yours. You need not read the whole book with me, I’ll just tell you what was going through my mind while I laboured (sorry!) through the pages. The point is, if “truth” is the agreed, polished, message of the establishment, then it is in trouble. It has been struggling since the early days of newspapers. For most of our history since the invention of printing, the right to print and distribute was strictly controlled. From the 1700s onward, business people agitated increasingly loudly for a right to print news and politics – they scented big profits – but statesmen were initially quite open about their horror of the idea. How could they keep people “on message” if their own doings and sayings in government were passed around freely? You can see some stunning examples of this argument throughout the 1800s if you look for histories of Stamp Duty Law, which is where a lot of the attempts to control newspapers appear and get debated. One of the more recent examples comes at the end of the first world war, where a British politician is on record as congratulating the editor of the Guardian for keeping “on message” during the war. “The British people,” he said, “would never have stood for it if they’d known what was really going on.”
After the shameless drive for profit, technology was the next phenomenon that threatened “the message” of the ruling minority. Popular radio and then television, ease of travel, with roving reporters turning up everywhere, began to be a regular embarrassment to business leaders, politicians and royals. The British Royal family did their very best to keep behind their camouflage but have lost bags of face and loyalty in the last generation or two, largely thanks to the press and the media spreading the shabby reality of their being typically human, only richer.
A feature of technological progress is that new inventions quickly become available to larger numbers of people. That’s what happened to publishing and communications technology. Soon, everyone could do what a few decades back only the professional investigative journalists could. Corporate law would stop ordinary people getting rich by using it, but it could not stop them using it. Even disaffected US soldiers could communicate and publish stuff – and so, via Wikileaks, we received Bradley Manning’s truth, and then even wars started losing the support of a controlled “message”. That was the moment we saw Tony Blair’s tower really starting to crumble.
People in general have never been particularly insistent on truth. Most of the time, a good story will do but the demand for “truth” arises when people feel conned, or when they’re having a hard time and, with the rise of social media, there are now millions, rather than thousands, out there angrily looking for their truth. George Michael dies, a tabloid paper immediately prints spread after spread of “how we loved George” and an army of social media punters hit back by sharing archive posts of that same newspaper’s “Pits and Perverts” front page at the time of the miners’ strike, and memes with messages such as “Tabloid papers told us Jimmy Saville was a force for good and George Michael was a pervert. They’re still trying to tell me stuff now.”
And once people start doing that, the first response is the “post-truth era” idea – they have just discovered they’ve been conned, so they think “truth” died quite recently and shout about its tragic death. But once you start looking, you can’t find the start of it. Tony Blair may have been a pinnacle of message-over-truth but he didn’t invent it. Take the “Pits and Perverts” incident. People who aren’t currently on a truth mission, still believe the media version of the government-versus unions battles of the 1970s but people who are currently “off message” can quite easily find the archives, look at the history and discover, for example, that the vast majority of those nasty, aggressive miners who ended up in hospital had wounds to the backs of their heads – clobbered by police swinging long truncheons from horseback as they ran away.
Next, the amateur researcher will find that the famous BBC footage of the “battle” at Orgreave was doctored by the BBC (whether with or without government instruction is still being investigated). The police drove miners into a dead end, corralled and beat them, and then furious, cornered miners started throwing stones. The BBC chose to crop the film and show the stone-throwing first, then the police charge, with the obvious effect. Once your amateur researcher knows this, they know they need to adjust most of what they’ve ever been told.
The Post Post Era
Of course, there is a kick-back. The establishment minority know that one game is up, and serious moves are now in evidence to curb social media and the technology that has allowed so many to start down the path of re-adjusting what they thought they knew – but communications technology is a hydra now. It’s going to be a hard job getting every filming, recording and dissemination device back into the hands of the minority. The only alternative is to oppress the majority into silence by starving them of services, homes, health care etc
But – when do people go after truth? When they’re desperate, when they’re cornered and when the stories aren’t working any more. When people are hungry, they’re hungry for truth. Once they start feeling that, you get movements like Occupy, People’s Assemblies, the Anti-Austerity Movement, the Corbyn-McDonnell movement: fresh, new, up-to-date forces demanding truth and its partner, fair play. They aren’t the first and they won’t be the last but, win or lose, they are proof that truth isn’t over, any more than history turned out to be over when Fukuyama wrote its obituary. It’s still there, it just goes in and out of fashion according to how people are faring, and how well the stories are working.
The era of using the word “post” to dismiss inconvenient things is over. It’s time we started giving our history a serious place in our thinking.
Well, here we are in lockdown again and among the trials and tribulations, our beloved bookshops are closed once more. If you’re in Hastings, please remember Bookbuster and Printed Matter still have ordering systems in place, and other shops around the town – and everywhere! – are offering their titles through online stores.
Here’s a selection of Circaidy Gregory Press non-fiction books currently available to buy online at bookshop.org
This Damn Puppeteer
“I know everything about alcohol – except how to stop” – Brian’s book is a work of art and philosophy a story of the after-effects of child abuse and the realities of life on the street. It touches all of us.
You can read all about the book, the play and Brian’s doings in Hastings on the blog here You can buy Brian’s exraordinary biography online at bookshop.org here
Fish-heads, Fire-raising and Force-Feeding
Women’s fight for the vote in Hastings and St Leonards
When I read Sheri S Tepper’s ‘Beauty’ back in the early ‘90s, I thought she had done me an injury.
I enjoyed it, but the Ending (not the ending of the book, The Ending) was just too dark. Not fair.
I just read it again, here in 2020 and, when I got to the bit about the Ending (which she places in the 21st century, round about now) I just thought yes, fair enough – but she left out the climate crisis.
Sheri S Tepper’s ‘Beauty’ offers hope, inspiration, and a tremendous call to action. It’s rich, it’s complex and – ooh, I don’t often use this word – it’s seminal. Next time I find myself looking at one of the more recent popular fantasies – Terry Pratchett perhaps, or J K Rowling, I’ll enjoy seeing the star-fire flashes of Tepper’s ideas in them.
Read ‘Beauty’, and remember – a fantasy book is as good or as bad as the ideas and the actions it inspires. Read it, then – as Ursula K Le Guin was fond of saying – go do the next thing. It may well be a better thing than the one you would have done if you hadn’t read ‘Beauty’, and you can’t say fairer than that.
In the absence of hard evidence of a divine engineer in the sky, I’d say the patterns in your mind are who you are.
This is my thought for the day because it became necessary to clean and decorate the back room, and to do that, it was necessary to move two wallfuls of books, including the poetry and the political sections.
It isn’t a chore. If you’re one of nature’s librarians (ie, your childhood created bookworm patterns in your mind) – if that’s your story then you’ll know that moving and sorting books is the third best thing in the world, coming after reading them and helping to make new books happen (for me, that’s publishing – for others, it’s writing, or buying, or borrowing, or reviewing, or forming clubs around discussing…) books.
Are books better?
Funny thing is, most people don’t read books. In a recent survey among some schools, kids were asked who reads books. “Old people and people with no friends” was a common answer. How much they are missing! To all those who say ebooks are as good as books, or browsing the internet is as good as any kind of book, I say – look to the patterns in your mind. Does bouncing around on the internet, slipping from link to link and forgetting where you started, really lay down a strong, comprehensible and retrievable pattern in your mind? How much do you remember of the stuff you clicked through yesterday, last week, last month? Can you flip to-and-fro, contemplate and come to know an ebook the same way you can a book on your shelf (not just when you’re reading it – all the time).
How gullible are you, how confusable are you, how well do you know your history, your environment, yourself? I suggest to you, along with David Didau, that people who read books have better lives – and the reason for that is the quality and retrievability of the patterns in their minds.
From Ely to South America and Back
While I was moving the political section (remember, we’re clearing out the back room so we can decorate) a hundred and one worlds opened their doors in my head, and reminded me of the richness of the forest in the mind. Here’s one: When I picked up The Open Veins of Latin America, I remembered a beautiful bookshop in Ely. It was a day of beautiful things – the cathedral, the river, the teashop with the samovar and the gunpowder tea – and this bookshop. And this book which, I confess, I picked up because the colours on the cover caught my eye long enough for me to notice what a startling title they presented.
And then, as I look at the book, more and more doors open in my head as I remember reading this tragic history, and how it led me to watch a film about Hugo Chavez, and how I learned that socialism must, and can only ever be, international socialism (act local, think global) because socialism is about people, not flags.
Socialism relies on ‘class analysis’ and you just can’t do that by the kinds of hats people are wearing, these days. Who is the ‘them’ in ‘them and us’ these days? Isn’t it the international corporations? Is it not the case that the ‘them’ we are up against are the world champion border-jumpers? If they can put the cause and the effect of their actions in different countries. And hoover the profits into their (global) banks while you’re watching the misery and chaos on the national news and wondering what it all means, they have already won. You’ll probably end up losing everything, and all the while looking around the neighbourhood for someone who looks a bit different to you to blame it on.
Narrativium – the drug of the post-truth generation?
And then another set of doors opened, and I remembered the more recent discovery that the author of The Open Veins of Latin America had expressed some regrets in later life, that he’d got caught up in what Terry Pratchett called narrativium, that if he’d had time to write it again, he would have written it differently.
That doesn’t mean the book is wrong, or bad, it means that a story can have the same start and a thousand different endings, depending what lines the author gets a-running along. But sometimes, like the author of that book, you need to retrace your steps, and take a look at some of the things that got lost along the way.
And that opened another, more recent set of doors, about all the things from recent years that are beginning to be forgotten in the daily click-fest – I remembered writing an essay for my CLP, explaining the theory of the ‘Overton Window’, of how the movement that gathered around Corbyn was steadily leading us back to socialism, to caring about others and our environment, caring about the truth – but they really didn’t need my essay – a tide was flowing our way. It isn’t now – and that brings me right back round to today, and reminds me how I need to talk to our local socialist group about the importance of getting that report properly investigated, so the truth will be known properly, and the size of the victory of the anti-austerity movement will be seen, despite the loss of that election, and so that we remember who the enemies were, which brings me to the importance of getting down to some serious political education so that our local socialists don’t forget that socialism is, and always must be, internationalist, analytical, and founded on strong, joined-up ideas – which requires an enormous bookshelf and/or regular, good-quality political education.
And that’s just one book, on one shelf. Going to go move the poetry books now. I wonder what’ll happen to the patterns in the mind then.
Think global, act local
Many of our Circaidy Gregory and Earlyworks Press books are now available to buy online at bookshop.org
There was a time back in the last century, when I gave credence to the idea of ‘colour blindness’ as a way of solving racism. It turned out to be a way of convincing yourself it had been solved – if you happened to be white British, that is. While we were being virtuously, wilfully blind, assuming everything was going to be rosy from now on, Liverpool was in turmoil, and school kids were passing around those “Boot Boys” novels. Many of us had completely blinded ourselves to the renaissance of fascism.
It doesn’t work because we don’t have a level playing field. I can see that you are black and act as though it doesn’t matter, but you can’t see that I’m white and act as though it doesn’t matter. I can pretend we’re the same colour, and the problems disappear – from my view. Not from yours.
But now, we have another form of wilful blindness to deal with. Understandable, and well-intentioned, a horde of would-be progressive academics, activists and politicians – to give a random sample: Dawn Butler, Philip Pullman, Owen Jones – and now Margaret Atwood apparently – are pretending to be sex-blind.
As with race, the problem with pretending to be sex-blind is that women have very real, very practical problems that can’t be catered for and can’t be funded unless our sex is recognised. The police, pretending to be sex-blind, record cases of ‘women’ committing violent and sexual crimes, and every time they do it, the statistics that women’s services depend on for their funding get hazier until they become worse than useless; women’s health and wellbeing groups are trying to get by without using any of the words that clearly denote the female condition, and as a result, the grounds for their funding and the efficiency of their outreach go down and down; and teaching on sex and gender has gone the same way – now so far from reality that we have a generation of young people who really cannot tell sex from gender.
What we need to know
Black people can’t escape the problems of being black unless we sort out our institutions and our racist cultural heritage, and we can’t do that unless we see, and talk about, the realities of colour.
It is not wrong to talk about, learn about, and formulate rules about, colour – in fact we need to.
Women can’t escape the problems of being female unless we sort out our institutions and our sexist cultural heritage, and we can’t do that unless we can see, and talk about, the realities of sex.
It is not wrong to talk about, learn about, and formulate rules about, sex – in fact we need to.
Like many people, I’m busy reading up on anti-racism now, because I realise we really, really need to talk about it and sort out the injustices going on around us. I was hoovering up Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” and agreeing with every word… but I ground to a halt on page 181. Feminism, she tells us, must work to liberate everyone. Yes, in a sense. I do believe that if we can deal thoroughly with sexism, we will all be living in a better, healthier society – but, to revert to my first example, does that mean we should be yelling “all lives matter” when black people have something to say? I don’t think so.
Eddo-Lodge says that feminists should be thinking about “disabled people, black people, trans people, women and non-binary people, LGB people and working class people” – well yes, but am I allowed to add “if they’re female”, or is she doing the “all people matter” thing at feminists?
Having included absolutely everyone in the worklist for feminists, Eddo-Lodge then illustrates her statement by saying feminism will have won when we’ve ended poverty, and when women are no longer required to do two jobs by default (meaning the care and the emotional work as well as the money-earning – true, but that’s about female people, isn’t it?). Feminism must combat sexual violence (that is, almost always, males attacking females). Feminism must combat the wage gap (because females earn less). And it must be class conscious (true, absolutely, unequivocally true). And she says feminism must be aware of “the limiting culture of the gender binary”.
And she’s lost it. Feminism is, and has always been, grounded in challenging the social rules and practices based on ‘gender’ – that is, the social constructions that tell us how males and females should behave and should be treated – constructions that are different in different cultures, but that have some commonalities (based on sex). But like many commentators, she’s translated that into telling us we must also disregard sex – wrong. Then she slips from ‘sex’ to ‘sexuality’ and tells us feminism must recognise that sexuality is fluid – well, that’s a whole nother argument and I’m not going to go into that one here but the key point is that reality matters.
Eddo-Lodge tells us that feminism, like anti-racism, has to be “absolutely utopian and unrealistic, far removed from any semblance of the world we’re living in now”. And here, at last, we have the key to a clash that’s been causing endless pain and furore in recent years. Yes, we must deconstruct race and racism. But colour won’t go away, because people are different colours. That’s reality. We must deconstruct GENDER and sexism – but we can’t deconstruct sex, because biology won’t go away. That’s reality.
Rejecting reality in order to be wilfully sex- or colour-blind means blinding yourself to problems that need our attention. If you want to help find solutions, please don’t do either.
Reality matters. Sex matters.
Racism, sexism and classism are the errors to be corrected.
Do please read Eddo-Lodge’s book – it’s excellent, except for page 181. We need to think about, and act on, what she’s saying.
And if you haven’t already, do please go to J K Rowling’s website and find out what she actually said about sex. It is exactly what we need to be saying, and exactly what women are being repeatedly punished for saying.