Paperback out now +more shenanigans


My third book Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom has now come out in paperback. It was actually released nearly two years ago at the usual heavy academic book price, so I was reluctant to publicise it at the time. But now I can! So get your instant Enlightenment, guaranteed. Everything you wanted to know about Spinoza but were afraid to ask.

Here’s my attempt at a Twitter thread where I set out why the book is worth a look.

And if that’s not sealed the deal, then you can get 30% off using the voucher code NEW30 when you order direct from Edinburgh University Press.

Apparently for a time you could get the other 70% off when you added the code MYMATEISDANYEAH but someone seems to have caught wind of this.

What’s that, you want to hear about all my other minor and obscure book chapters and niche ideas? Really? You sure? Ah fantastic. Well read on.

The other day I was on Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme on “The invention of animals”, joining Katherine Rundell, Stella Sandford and Helen Cowie. I talked about medieval and early modern attitudes to animals and what they can tell us about politics and society.

I wrote an essay for The Philosopher titled “On Method”, which is out in their new issue. In it I set out what I think makes philosophical method interesting, journeying through the concepts of orientation, causality, metaphor and struggle. I recommend getting a subscription to this sharp, engaging and accessibly written magazine of ideas.

Heard about “climate anxiety” but don’t really know what it is? Or think maybe it’s a bit of an overreaction/load of old nonsense/one of the most pressing issues of our time/the reason we should pack it all in and move to the Faroes? Well you’re in luck, because I wrote an open access book chapter explaining what it is, how to understand it, and how we can make use it for a new edited collection. You can read it here.

Woah – wait up. I totally forget to share my possibly epoch-changing book review of David Ridley’s The Method of Democracy for the European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy. (It is a good book). You can read it here and it’s open access.

Last one – me and Marie Wuth have got a green light to develop a new edited collection, New Perspectives on Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise: Politics, Power and the Imagination, with Edinburgh University Press. All being well, that will appear in a couple of years.

Friends I won’t subject you to a long year in review. I read lots of books. Two which stood out were Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims, The Qur’an and E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which I read twice (but I wouldn’t trust my counting – I just said that was two). It was a hard year with moments of colour, like dancing to Kraftwerk one afternoon in a field. For those, and all the hugs I am blessed to share with my 4-year-old son, who amazes me every day with his smiles and his light, I am most thankful.


Soupful of stuff

Political, Teaching

Let the quietness of the blog not give the impression that little is happening. Rapid updates, interleafed with some curious images found in Gateshead Archive for your delectation:

  1. I’ve been awarded £10,000 in HE-BCI funding for a 1-year project in Gateshead, looking at how unpaid carers have been impacted by changes to government spending and the cost-of-living crisis. It’s in partnership with Gateshead Carers, the aim being to co-produce a carers’ charter, videos, report and local event highlighting carers’ overlooked contribution to the basic functioning of people’s lives and communities as social security and local services are cut back. It’ll also feed into a chapter for the next book.

  2. My third book Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom will be out in paperback in November. With Christmas on its way, it’s the ideal gift for the person who’s got everything, right? Beatitudo guaranteed. (I was reluctant to publicise the hardback as it was forbiddingly expensive. This is now much more reasonable).

  3. Lots of teaching work over the last year. Some ready to harvest:

    Ready now: I rewrote and updated one part of the OU core politics module DD211 Understanding Politics. This included making a video about the history of the climate crisis, and interviews on climate activism/policy with Kate Soper, Bob Ward, Daze Aghaji. I also put together audios/teaching material on neo-liberalism and neo-statism with Paolo Gerbaudo; the Enlightenment, freedom and slavery with Kehinde Andrews and Holly Brewer; the Equality Act with Robin Allen QC and Caroline Derry at the OU; democracy in crisis in Brazil, India and the UK with M. Rajshekhar (author of this great book), and colleagues Britta Weiffen and Richard Heffernan; and on sovereignty with another great colleague, Simon Usherwood. It was a point of honour to write an introductory discussion of Mark Fisher’s concept of ‘capitalism realism’ in one of the chapters.

    Ready in autumn 2023: I’ve done lots of work on a new social sciences module, D113 Global Challenges: Social Sciences in Action. As well as writing a couple of weeks, it includes overseeing five films about climate crisis, the legacies of colonialism and enslavement, and digital technology; and later in the module, one about Coventry and development. I was pleased to get some unexpected perspectives and UK locations throughout these films, and they stand up well – in large part due to the great work of the production team at Common Story.

  4. Publications: a smaller crop this year. Two chapters. One in a collection coming out in December, “Do we still not know what a body can do?”, exploring embodiment through Spinoza, Arendt, Guery and Deleule.

  5. Another on “Climate Anxiety, Fatalism and the Capacity to Act” in a Routledge collection on approaches to autonomy, also out end of the year.

  6. On the publication front, I’m about to submit two big bits of new work to journals. I’ve got a ridiculous list of things to finish before the end of the year. I also put together an ambitious bid for a collaborative OU project on “The Future of Borders” with a team of great colleagues doing interesting and important work around the UK. Everything in this bullet may well be destined to rejection, but I hope there’ll be something good to report in a few months’ time.

  7. Little Ice Age: I forgot to link it at the time, but a piece me and Ariel Hessayon wrote for The Conversation was published in The Independent.

  8. With my colleagues Gerry Mooney and Helen O’Shea, I’ve been an academic consultant for a new BBC/OU co-production called Union, presented by David Olusoga. It tells a different, unexpected, critically-edged story of how the United Kingdom came about. At a moment of fragmentation and contestation of that “union”, brought to mind again with the death of the Queen, it’s a fitting time to be exploring this story. It’s expected to be broadcast sometime next year.

  9. I guest-edited the annual publication of the School of Social Sciences and Global Studies at the OU. It’s a great showcase of the fine work our staff and students are doing, and a pleasure to be involved. Read it here.

  10. Finally, David Ridley published a short polemical book called No Consolation: Radical Politics in Terrifying Times. As well as an endorsement, I wrote a short piece about it for a small publication, Post-16 Educator, titled “From Safety to Where?”, available here.

  11. And finally finally, before I think of even more things, I’m giving a talk on Spinoza’s concept of ingenium (which can refer to mentality, mindset, but also a collective or national “character”) as part of a panel for the Princeton-Bucharest Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy on 15 November. It’s online, free, and at 6.30 UK time.


I bumped into someone the other day who I hadn’t seen in some years. The last they’d read of me was Island Story, which had come out in 2016 and then generated some buzz the year after with an Orwell nomination. He wondered why I had not written more travelogues. What had happened?

Back in the latter part of 2016 I had in mind writing a book about Ireland. I have family connections there and know some of the history. It would’ve been called Tara’s Hill or something like that, the Hill of Tara being the place where the Irish kings used to be crowned and a site of mythological significance. Sounds a little pompous but the point would’ve been to play and skew established narratives like Island Story did (David Cameron’s favourite book, apparently).

But I remember being up in Donegal Town for a few days for a family gathering. It was interesting, strange – visiting the ruined two-room cottage walls where my Grandma Bridie and her thirteen-or-so siblings once lived, a site of pain, then a staged photo, remarkable that in the space of a generation her children and grandchildren were now living in unimaginably improved circumstances. A lot you can work on with that. And then, as ever, a lot of heavy drinking in the various bars, laughter and singing along to guitars, and later, fuzzy heads and leathery tongues.

Over that trip I kept thinking: how on Earth can a single visit capture the situation, lives and communities in a place? Perhaps through some luck, but as often through lending the narrative to just one small aspect, often a more familiar aspect (e.g. deindustrialisation in the North, or, if it were about Donegal, something to do with the famine or Troubles maybe, perhaps a final section on the legacies of the “Celtic tiger”).

And there’s nothing wrong with that – far more is covered, and the material is approached with the same unformed mind as the reader – but it is limited too. Far better to do dedicated work over days, weeks, months, walking the contours of a place, having conversations again and again with the same people, with different people, drawing out stories, building trust, allowing them space to shape the stories told. Recognising too that community isn’t the same as place, that while some communities or representatives lay claim to place, others are on the margins.  

That said, it would still be a good book. But other factors come into play too. It’s not possible to do that kind of work and teach full-time. Or be an attentive and decent partner. It can be done cheaply, that kind of travel writing, but still some savings are needed to cover lost earnings (Island Story could only have been written because I was receiving a condition-free PhD studentship of around 16k per year while in a social housing tenancy). And above all, why do the same thing over and again. Life is bitterly short. If I had the chance, I’d want to live a thousand different lives as well as my own, not be pigeonholed into the same.

Anyway, this line of thinking has shaped the new work, which is quite different in nature to anything that’s gone before. There’s not much point saying more about it – let it be judged once it’s finished, which will be several years away. But in a time of climate crisis and 1930s-level inequalities, at a time of unprecedented crises in care, broadly conceived, I think it’s unethical to rehash the same kinds of cultural and political writing and ideas. We’re in a new kind of water.

The Sheep Look Up etc.


I’ve written a few short pieces for a public audience recently.

The Conversation: The Sheep Look Up: Cult 1970s sci-fi novel predicted today’s climate crisis

Philosophy Now: Spinoza and the troubles of the heart

The Conversation: How 17th century Britain’s ‘cancel culture’ can help us understand the importance of free speech

The first one I had fun working on. The original draft was more radical, but I was glad to get across some of my points, particularly around narratives, metaphors and frames, which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. The discussion, in the comments and also by email, has been really interesting. These debates will return to the fore when the next IPCC report comes out on societal impacts next week.

I’ve been driving a lot around the A13 and Thames estuary. Reading lots. Getting immersed in debates around class, capitalism and colonialism, and about dreams, ideology and damaged life, all on that stretch. Mining for the next book, the keywords of the near future.

I was on strike this week and last, like many. The response by UUK to UCU’s counter-proposals to the pension was galling. Late at night, I’m often doom-scrolling posts from academics about working conditions and what’s going on. There’s so much I want to say about my experiences and feelings, pre-OU (which has been a wonderful place to work), but I can’t bring myself to it. Looking at that time, late PhD and post-PhD, it was a blur of illness, exhaustion, hope, fear, anxiety, goodwill, wishful thinking, anger, solidarity, isolation and love – love of teaching, love of the craft. I have nothing coherent to say and probably won’t for some time. I will be on strike next week.

On chess


My essay on chess is now up online on The Philosopher webpage:

It’s written like a game of chess, involving two sides. It weighs up different styles and approaches to playing the game, as well as its place in literature and philosophy. I’d been interested in Spinoza’s connection to chess for a while, and this piece gave me a place to explore that as well as revisit some favourites old (Pessoa) and new (Shakespeare’s The Tempest).

Another piece on climate anxiety came out on the Open University’s COP26 hub.

It was written before the inconclusive event in Glasgow. The one thing that this piece, and another forthcoming on the same topic hasn’t yet got right, to my satisfaction at least, is the importance of framing these as political problems, and not psychological ones. And unfortunately the urgency and motivation to act among policymakers seems to have since dissipated.

Finally, here’s a video from last year with me introducing my research. Watch out for the triffid in the background – does it shift closer and closer as I speak…?




Here’s what I’ve been doing the last few months.

1. On Damaged and Regenerating Life – an essay on Spinoza, climate change and the Capitalocene. For the special issue of Crisis and Critique on Spinoza, featuring the great and the good.

2. Some short essays for the Open University’s OpenLearn platform, on various things:

  1. Why do we need free speech?
  2. Trouble in Paradise: the Dutch Golden Age
  3. Why are people superstitious?

These articles each manage to shoehorn Spinoza at the end. Credit my imagination here for some otherwise unexpected (possibly tenuous) links.

3. I co-organised a conference on Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, belatedly marking its 350th anniversary, with the great Marie Wuth. It was a good, free event, and well sold-out. We had to turn away about 3/4 of abstract submissions, interest was high. We were fortunate to have it funded by the British Society for the History of Philosophy. Most of the speakers were recorded onto a special conference webpage here. And then a colleague made another website that’s kind of the same, but looks better, here.

It took me about a week to transcribe these talks. Writing out the subtitles for YouTube. Yes, I had to. So please, watch a video with the subtitles on, let me know it wasn’t for naught. I even include little notes on audience interruptions, etc.

A short video introducing it all:

4. Teaching

I’ve now made loads of my old teaching resources available, in the Teaching tab. This includes slides and course syllabi for about fourteen courses including, in no special order:

Already, I’ve had up there two more:

Teaching that sheer range of subjects – plus seminars on many other courses where the lecture material isn’t mine, and supervision on subjects ranging from the history of Georgian boxers, Quaker attitudes to Islam, existentialist literature, and the philosophy of heritage-informed performance in music – was occasionally lovely, but often tough. I worked like Stakhanov for four years, cycling across London in all weathers, often not in the best health, teaching with a sense of vocation and love for the craft which bordered on masochism.

I’m proud of that work but also glad I can look back on it. I worked hard but I was also lucky. In early 2020 before the pandemic broke out, I’d been thinking seriously about retraining as a mental health social worker. The situation at Goldsmiths had been bleak – strikes, mulled departmental closure (more on that below), a future of precarity. And then, a breakthrough.

At the Open University, a new short course I worked on went live:

Media, Politics and Society – link here. Runs several times across the year. I wrote the fake news week. Weird conspiracies, Pizzagate, disinformation, the Zinoviev letter, Russia-backed black power and anti-capitalist groups and much more.

I’m busy rewriting part of one course, and doing a lot of work making another brand new, but there won’t be news on either for a long time.

5. Book reviews

Incidentally, my Spinoza book got a lovely write-up here, by Timothy Deane-Freeman. A couple more very nice reviews are on their way, in academic outlets.

6. Talks

  • “Jane Addams and sympathetic knowledge”, for the British Society for the History of Philosophy annual conference in April.
  • “Gateshead: care, public health and austerity”, for the British Sociological Association graduate one-dayer, “Situating Austerity” in July. I’ve talked on Gateshead before but this had a new approach and a deeper argument.
  • “England’s Dreaming. Nation, Belonging and Class in the Fragmented Union Debate”, for the IIPPE conference in September.
  • “Democracy, Sympathy and Difference”. I’m giving this talk to colleagues at the Open University tomorrow, but it’s open to the public. Here’s an abstract. And here’s a link – it’s at 12 noon on Friday 15th October. Join here, using Microsoft Teams: click this link. I won’t have time to write an outline like with the above, things have been chaotic – I’m going to talk through some images and questions related to sympathy as a moral and political emotion.

7. In the can

An essay on chess for The Philosopher. Another on Spinoza and love for Philosophy Today. A couple of pieces on climate anxiety, one a substantial essay, another a short little thing. And another on one of Foucault’s key sources in Discipline and Punish.

Others are on their way – four substantial new essays, one new project, an odd little piece on refusing to speak  – but best wait til they see the light.

That’s the end of the cringey self-publicity. Now, to the real stuff.

8. Friends

Some friends have had achievements worth celebrating. Here’s a list of those, and of great new books I have liked a lot.

  • Yari Lanci passed his viva last week, with a brilliant thesis I got to read on Marx, Foucault and the government of time.
  • Steve Hanson published A Shaken Bible. His reviews and editorial for the Manchester Review of Books make it the best magazine for ideas going, hands down.
  • David Ridley published a fascinating and important book on John Dewey and the concept of collective intelligence. He’s part of a great new initiative, Beyond Education, with public meetings.
  • Lara Choksey’s Narrative in the Age of the Genome is a wonderful guide to recent experimental fiction and its relation to genomics. It ends with an image of life as fragile, embodied, incomplete: ‘the ways that time does not capture consequences in advance, but proliferates chance.’ It’s free to read online.
  • M. Rajshekhar’s, Despite the State. Written indefatigably over 33 months across 6 states in India, it’s a politically astute and compelling travelogue through India’s crisis of democracy, written with a deep humanity for those he meets.
  • John Barker, an interesting and brilliant thinker who has helped me approach contemporary capitalism with more precision and nous, has co-produced five great podcasts on disease and pandemics in a distorted world for the Liverpool Biennial: Transmission (listen here).
  • With the relaxation of restrictions in recent months, it’s been a gift to catch up with friends again, where possible. Others haven’t been well. It’s not the same but I’ve also been grateful for the email or WhatsApp exchanges that keep friendship and community going.
  • Laura Grace Ford has been publishing some groundbreaking short fiction on the new London that’s appearing, in places like here and here. That London also comes across direct here.
  • Finally, My brother is pioneering a strange and brilliant form of landscape expression, part Chirico, part Hockney, 100% himself. As an artist he is relatively unknown, but his psychic navigation of the myths of the near future should be on record and book covers.

9. Goldsmiths

I’m so bitterly sad to see that Goldsmiths are planning to sack the equivalent of 20x full-time lecturers in History, and in English and Creative Writing. I don’t know how these are spread between them, but it will effectively mean the closure of the History department. I taught there for four years, working with fine colleagues and teaching fantastic students. This is bleak news. But I remember conversations in late 2019/early 2020, not long after the new VC arrived, when it became clear that departments like ours would be merged and gutted, with a couple of surviving research centres tacked onto other departments. Management said otherwise; we thought they were lying, and they were.

Goldsmiths is a very special, endangered place for the critical humanities. One day, people may come to recognise a distinctive “Goldsmiths School” style of applied critical theory and cultural studies, a shared sense of affinities and mood, an interest in exploring and narrating the affects and psychological landscapes of neoliberal capitalism, a nous about “management”, an antagonistic politics committed to radical democracy and the working class reclamation of the city, and an interest in stylistic experimentation that links a range of some of the most interesting thinkers of the last few years. This School has always been interdisciplinary – taking and stealing from the fields of philosophy, cultural studies, sociology, fine art, urban studies, politics, visual cultures, music and literature. This School is not located in any one department, and some of its best adherents may have only had fleeting liaisons with Lewisham Way. For some, the relationship with Goldsmiths has been hard and uneasy. But once these vital critical spaces are lost, they’re very difficult and time-building to rebuild. So solidarity to colleagues facing heartbreaking redundancies, with all the financial and personal consequences they entail. Please fight, and whoever reads this, give them every support you can. Follow Goldsmiths UCU here.

Recent deeds


I have singularly failed to keep this blog updated with recent work. This might give the impression that I’ve been dwelling in a bunker, riding out the pandemic surrounded by tins of chopped tomatoes and piles of the London Review of Books.

That wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But instead it’s been a whirlwind of different things: putting out the new Spinoza book, writing quite a few articles and essays, some yet to be published, some inevitably to be rejected. I co-organised a Spinoza conference which was a real pleasure. I’ve given talks on Gateshead, the A13 and climate anxiety and have been exploring disinformation. I’ve been a busy, attentive Dad and partner – the deeds that matter. I’ve hopefully been a reliable colleague. I’ve been a bad and inattentive friend. Sleep deprivation is now a regular state. Over the last six months I’ve also got healthier and stronger, taking up a lot of exercise, and have gently shifted my outlook on things.

I won’t give a longer account of any of that. Instead here are details of recentish work:

  1. Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom book
    I pushed the publication date of this back into January for the REF. It is still a very expensive hardback. It will come out as a paperback next year, I’m not sure when. Please email me if you are interested in a copy. I am not aware of any reviews yet. One friend has told me they really liked it, but then friends are good like that aren’t they!

2. The Machine Stops… short piece on E.M. Forster and life under lockdown for The Conversation.

3. “The Disuniting Kingdom? Looking at the Meaning of the Nation in a Climactic Year” – a critical piece on the ongoing, never-ending state-of-the-nation debates for LSE History. This piece emerged out of conversations with a great colleague at the OU. Hopefully more work will follow. It obviously builds on Island Story.

4. Talk on the A13. Because why not. Here’s a version below:

5. Talk on Climate Anxiety – I gave versions of this twice, to different audiences. Here’s a version of one to colleagues. This material on climate anxiety will be turned into a published essay. Download below:

You can also watch a recording of me giving an earlier version of the paper here (that’s not me but the great Kate Schapira, below):

6. Talk on Gateshead, austerity and its impact on caregivers. Also gave this one twice to different kinds of audiences. Here’s the version to some colleagues. Both this topic, and the A13, are the basis of two chapters in the next book. Download below:

7. Fake News – I wrote material on fake news for a new Open University short course with colleagues, “Media, Politics and Society”, in association with the BFI. That should go live later this year.

8. Discussion on Mark Fisher, Spinoza and psychedelic reason with Matt Colquhoun:

Now, onto Spinoza…

9. Review of Tony Negri’s Spinoza: Then and Now for the BJHP – one of his better ones

10. Review of Étienne Balibar, Spinoza, The Transindividual – good book, but this important but imperfect concept needs less adulatory secondary scholarship

11. The World of Spinoza’s TTP – introductory short essay for the Edinburgh University Press blog

12. Spinoza and Democracy in Peril – another short piece for EUP

13. A very introductory video to Spinoza for Faculti – very simplified. I also work for OU Politics, not Philosophy…

14. Spinoza’s TTP: Politics, Power and the Imagination – I co-organised this 2.5 day conference with Marie Wuth (Aberdeen) a fortnight ago. The quality of speakers and discussion was brilliant. There’s more on the conference website here. In about a month or so, it will be updated again with video recordings of some of the presentations, and some related free OpenLearn essays I will write, probably in the vein of 10 and 11 above.

On the horizon…

I spent over a month on an ambitious essay on mentalities of climate catastrophe which will be published. Beyond the Spinoza book, it’s probably the only other thing I’ve worked on in the last couple of years that really has my voice in it.

There’ll be another essay out at some point on climate anxiety. And another, on affinities between Spinoza and Hannah Arendt on the work of early 1970s French theorists Guery and Deleule (total unknowns, but worth a look). And, as works in progress, long articles on Malcolm X and prison study, on a new theoretical approach to anger and collective activity, on Spinoza and slavery, on George Eliot’s Spinoza and human fragility, and more I won’t list now. And a talk on the wonderful Jane Addams at the BSHP Conference on women philosophers in two weeks. If you have never heard of it or Addams before, take a look at Addams’ Democracy and Social Ethics and find out more about this wonderful figure.

October update


May this find you well…

Just briefly:

My next book, Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom, will be out with Edinburgh University Press from December this year. Hopefully a cheaper paperback will follow.

I am now a Lecturer in Social and Political Thought at the Open University, which I joined in July. My new colleagues and institution are wonderful. It feels like home. They are doing important work there.

I have redesigned and updated this site. There’s now a section on Teaching which has the YouTube videos and learning materials from two of my courses on The Stoics and post-war French philosophy (Society, Language, Difference). They were taught remotely this year during the lockdown. The Stoics in particular was an important one. They have a lot to teach us.

I will update that section with other teaching materials from my other courses in due course. I am starting a new phase of writing and research in political theory, with the blessing of job security and the Spinoza book soon behind me. But it will not be rushed.

Six years since Searching


It is six years this week since I first set out on the journey that would become Island Story. I captured those long sunny days from a bike-seat on a blog, Searching for Albion. I’d update it each day while out on the road. Experiences, stories, observations, odd banter. Usually in the pub, while charging up my phone and drying out my jacket on a radiator. I did a lot of drinking that summer.

That blog now stands as a vast, rambling, multi-sensory primary source anthology of lives in 2014. Looking back, I set out to be like the eye in Virginia Woolf’s writing, that takes in the whole scene and ‘licks it all up instantaneously’. (Ok, enough pub references).

It was tough graft too. A bike that rode like it was set in concrete, two cheap panniers full of dirty laundry and whisky, and a camera that looked like it had a flying saucer trapped inside it. But it stands as my best work, even up til today.

(The picture above is a textbook example of the bad, near-death roadside photography on there, yet still carrying a disquieting air of a moment).

But. What would be different now?

Well, there’d be nowhere to drink.

But I picked up a suspicion of strangers, of my strangeness, of a much greater degree when I was doing some drifting last summer. I put that down to Brexit and the cultural/class markers that have risen around it. I was in the North-east then, around Gateshead and Sunderland. In that case, so my thinking went, there could be a wariness of being judged or labelled by a middle class liberal outsider. A justified wariness. But while I set out to question and to test, I couldn’t sense anything coherent responding. I was just drifting in and out of pubs, hospitals, supermarkets and residential areas, trying to restart or make new contacts, but …

Fading out.

Ahead to now. Three things stand out, where Searching for Albion was on the money, and where it was not.

Security and insecurity. The UN Rapporteur’s visit and the Marmot Review flag up rising real poverty, the kind the writing about gleaned, but usually indirectly. Insecurity around current or future employment, or around housing, was everywhere. This insecurity links the poorer and middle classes more than would at first seem – for the middle classes, it often relates to their children. It might seem more obviously generational – I met and spent more time talking to young people then, but I met plenty of middle-aged and near retirement people with the same real uncertainty about whether they could ensure their basic needs could be indefinitely provided for. A society that no longer offers a liveable life (being one, I would say, free of regular anxiety), and a Tory state that’s since given up a pretence of a social contract.

The journey caught some of that. But it takes deeper, much more embedded reporting. Making contacts and then developing conversations over a time, developing in slower and more responsive fashion a more substantial impression, like a painter’s brushstrokes on a canvas.

Collective life. Some used nationalism as a way of articulating a shared vision of a more progressive, democratic politics. That was in Scotland for the main. Others talked about Britishness as something multicultural, or about the working class, or about the English and their history, or a cosmopolitan human race. For me, they were webs of ideas that served a more important, human end – that we identify with others beyond just our immediate friends and family, and we draw strength from these identifications.

Where collective life is either in a neglected or derelict state, as it is in most places, then isolation and mental ill health prevails. ‘Mandatory individualism’, Mark Fisher called it later. Hannah Arendt writes about the political dangers of loneliness. Fatalism about human nature, or that others should be trusted, leads to a political conservatism and justification of a cruel, aggressive, status quo. For all his learning, the philosopher John Gray’s work always returns to this same over-familiar destination. The need for a collective life, and the need to participate and have some role in the lives of others, is something my earlier work listened to without fully understanding back then.

The environment – because what does not flood will burn. And most of us will live to reckon with the effects of inaction of the last forty years, it will slowly take hold our breath. Back then, it was a concern for some. The best work was taking place in Machynlleth, but I wonder how many of those young people (or their small energy firms) survived the years of swingeing cuts that came even after.

All are linked, particularly one and two. From that we could spin a web that takes in social class, the 2014 European Parliament results with Ukip’s strong showing, or Brexit… The last two elections have more to do with Corbyn than some now accept. But really, this is Westminster talk. The relatively non-party political tone of many back then said much more about a more decentred, untethered way of viewing the world.

But you tell me. What was left out back then, and through what would a more reliable narrator need to think (or drink) in nowadays? Send me a quick email. I’m thinking about this.

Lockdown Stoics


I’m teaching two philosophy courses online on Mondays, starting next week:

Both through the Mary Ward Centre at a highly affordable rate (11 classes for £73/£32)

The Stoics well, because, in times like these…

But also because these thinkers, and ones I’ve grouped around them on this experimental course, have given me peerless guidance in the past. Lucid, practical, consoling, real… Alongside Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius we’ll explore the Dhammapada, Ecclesiastes, the Rubaiyat, Shakespeare, the vanitas, Spinoza’s Ethics and Victor Frankl.

Watch the first class for free below:

Society, Language, Difference is a guide for the perplexed to post-WW2 French philosophy. From the Frankfurt School and Freudo-Marxism to decolonisation, Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, May 68, women’s liberation, Lacan, all the way to Baudrillard, postmodernism and the personal computer. Exploring key texts, debating new ideas and demystifying the obscure.

Each week will involve a bit of reading (about 1h), a recorded video lecture by me available a few days before, then a 1h-2h discussion with the group of about 10-15 students on Zoom.

If you’d like to know more, just email me. These will be the last courses I give at Mary Ward, and the last public facing ones for a while.

Cosmic dancer


This has been a time of unprecedently intense dreaming. And little wonder, when dreams are one of the few places in which we are free to roam.

Evidence (anecdotal and otherwise) seems to suggest that many of us have been dreaming much more intensely since this lockdown. With the old world either paused or at an end, it’s fitting that our experiences are more coloured by dwelling in places neither future nor past, but in a blurry space between. The mind-worlds of a younger self, or the shape of things never to come.

When we come to look back on it, I wonder if we’ll forget that sense of fear and disorientation that marked the period right before the lockdown began. Terror, about the safety of our more vulnerable loved ones. The panic-buying of bog roll and pasta. Experiences of those days and weeks all differ. In my house, we did all get coronavirus we think, just after the lockdown began. Fevers, temperatures, loss of taste, conjunctivitis, a cough that dragged on for weeks. Mercifully, all recovering after a couple of weeks.

I didn’t set out to write a coronavirus post, but to update you on some thoughts on where we’re going (and that I’ve tidied this blog up), but it looks like discussion doesn’t head any other way. So, maybe it is a coronavirus post. But this isn’t about learning to appreciate the free time, or about making bread, or reading clever books. A lot depends not just on your economic position, but your social one too. But I don’t think I’ve learned anything. I haven’t grown.

Our situation is different of course. Me and my partner have been working over full-time, as is usual, but balancing looking after a toddler with that has been hard. I now do childcare most of the week. That’s been nice most of the time. I have a close bond with my son, we have a lot of fun, but it’s hard at others too. This won’t be a time of productivity then, nor should it. And our situation is better than most – we’ve got seemingly secure jobs, food, a roof over our heads, family around to help.


Responses to how friends and family are faring are always going to be anecdotal, and that’ll always be limited by my social circles. But I do gain a wider perspective through the students I teach, most aged about 19 or 20, but a significant number between 50 and 70.

Compared to previous years, contact with my students has been less frequent, once the remote teaching is out the way. But whereas students would often relay ideas for essays and dissertations back and forth, now that work has in lots of cases slowed significantly. Some have gotten ill, but relayed more often are feelings of anxiety and paralysis as their loved ones have either gotten ill or have seemed worryingly vulnerable to doing so.

I often hear them more listless than before, unable to focus. ‘TL;DR’ is a new one to me (I hope you’re not reaching this conclusion already…)

In the background are negotiations around space, time and who they are, as many are sent back to crowded family homes that university was in part an escape from. In part, that struggle to concentrate reflects the not-knowing where it all stands. Vague, shifting rules of the lockdown; vague, shifting dates of assessments. This respiratory pandemic has thrown everything in the air.

But it comes down to something more basic – fear.

Fear so deep, fear so debilitating. Powerful and urgent feelings of fear, which reactivate deeper and older fears within us. Fears whose origin or nature is intangible, and comes out in different ways.

One of the most useful things I got from teaching a course on Martha Nussbaum’s philosophy this term (I will write about this course here soon) was her emphasis on how fear and helplessness are at the root of what makes us human, particularly in our earliest formative months and years. Out of the infant’s fear emerges a tyrannical narcissism (I see this first-hand!). ‘His majesty the baby’, said Freud wryly.

But while the infant’s helplessness and dependency is overcome through their development and away from their mothers, certainly no scientist yet has found a vaccination against our helplessness. If so, human beings would become gods.

Anger is a child of fear, Martha Nussbaum argues in The Monarchy of Fear, and it is hard to see how, out of the grave social and economic uncertainties around each of us right now – and not just here, but even more so in the developing world – that powerful forces of anger can be easily checked. There is already a hint of this in the editorial line of publications like The Economist hinting at a shift away from unregulated free markets and austerity as politically unpalatable (let alone irresponsible and counterproductive) in reconstructing western economies after Covid-19.

But this macro perspective drifts away from what’s right under our noses. Back in the mid-19th century, Benjamin Disraeli wrote of Two Englands that existed side-by-side without ever really being understood by the other. With the current pandemic, this has happened in two ways.

First, social class has had a vastly disproportionate effect on sickness and deaths. These have been highest in parts of England associated with greatest concentrations of poverty: Newham in East London as well as the North-East of England, around Gateshead and Sunderland. Both, unexpectedly, were places I have been researching before all this began. Death have also tended to be higher among older in generally poorer BAME communities. That’s not to say being poor alone is the cause: health, diet, genetics, cultural norms about family life and cultural engagement with public health all count too. But it’s significant.

Second is the lockdown and work. The middle classes have largely been protected by furlough schemes and the ability to work from home safely (doctors an obvious exception). But with many working class jobs, it’s not merely about difficulties accessing furlough schemes for self-employed or zero hour workers; it’s about the expectation that work can and will continue. Delivery drivers and shop staff, care-workers, local government services, builders and tradesmen. The Deliveroo rider, once the image of the gig economy, is doing a brisk trade around the streets of Leyton and Stratford – I see them skip the lights when I take my son out on the bike. For many middle class people, the lockdown is inconvenient, boring, but an opportunity for engaging in homely or learned pursuits – sourdough and podcasts. For much of working class England, it seems to be quite different – continued work, deeper financial uncertainty, greater likelihood of loved ones or oneself falling ill (it would seem).

No-one’s being told off here, there’s enough moralising as it is. It’s just worth reminding ourselves to be more sceptical of the images of solidarity being blasted out by Tory rags alongside an NHS tea-towel and a message from the Queen.

Consider this, below, from Saturday’s Mail. I can imagine Year 10 students analysing this in 50 years time for some school History coursework on how the ideology of Johnsonism contributed to the UK’s inept handling of the pandemic.

This front-page is the key to understanding the present and near future…



There are three things we should keep in mind here.

1) This is less the start of a new era, more an acceleration of problems of the old…

The powerful always appeal for solidarity in a crisis, we saw the same in 2008 and after. There’s no reason to think that one mid-term effect of all this huge state support for the private sector won’t result in the same levels of wealth inequality being preserved, if not even worsened.

But it shows what many of us had argued or at least suspected. In Boris Johnson’s magic money forest, the Keynesian lumberjack would be at a loss at where to begin. The state always had the ability to draw and use its vast resources to eliminate homelessness or better fund the NHS. What it doesn’t show yet is that a universal basic income is possible – western economies are able to borrow relatively cheaply compared to the developing world to finance short-term support, but something longer would involve a complete restructuring not just of the economy, but in people’s relationship and identification with work (and that is a longer way off).

But it’s interesting to begin thinking about a “great pause” or a post-2020 world in which universal well-being and power replace the competitive individualism and cynicism about human nature of the last 40 years. In the immense reconstruction and regeneration that lies ahead, there is an opportunity to rebuild politics and the economy with different ideas and values. And if hope or love does not motivate some, then we always will have fear – fear of the same mistakes, the countless dear ones lost because of inadequate personal protection, the callousness behind the policy of ‘herd immunity’, or bungled state responses.

But fear of something else that will come back every year for this decade, and for every decade thereafter – climate. The climate crisis, and what will become the increasingly urgent need to act nationally and internationally in response to a series of natural and humanitarian emergencies.

Then there is the continued problem of general inequality across the world (even if absolute poverty has been significantly reduced). And just as natural environments are collapsing, so networks of social care have too – long underfunded, undervalued, and now collapsing too. All require an immense programme of regeneration.

2) We should start to orientate our thinking

I said earlier that I hadn’t learned anything. And perhaps all that dream talk can also be explained by a lack of stimulation with genuine difference and new experiences. But that’s not quite true.

I’ve been following how people have been responding to all this in terms of their thinking. For about half a moment I had a hare-brained idea of calling everyone I have known over the past few years and asking them a question. Then I remembered I was holding a crying kiddie whose nappy had exploded and I hadn’t slept properly for two weeks.

But the question is still worth mulling: What have you learned from the past six weeks? And what’s one way in which you’d like things to change after this?

Well, really that’s two questions. And the second is too vague to answer. Yes, but it’s deliberately so, because things mean many things to each of us. In thinking about my answer, part of the conversation has been how the middle classes and upper should contribute much more to a reconstruction that has so far been better at protecting them. I mean in part the kinds of corporate and wealth taxes associated with Thomas Piketty’s latest book. But it’s more than that. It’s about thinking seriously about things that indirectly over-benefit these groups, like the housing market, or the investment of much of our pension funds in often ethically questionable businesses.

But that also means getting beyond blame or praise. It’s not about moralising or pointing out the bad people, about scapegoating some or cancelling others. It’s about living up to Spinoza’s maxim: ‘not to laugh at human actions, or mourn them, or curse them, but only to understand them’.

Cartoon from The Economist, 25th April 2020


3) This is still about politics

When those Year 10 students in the year 2070 yawn and look over their screens at the list of sources and questions about our response right now, let’s hope they keep the facts at the forefront. As Professor Sarah Harper, founding director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing said in the Observer today:

“To be blunt, it was a lack of testing, a failure to shut down society in time, and a lack of care equipment that are to blame for current high Covid-19 death rates.”

Elsewhere in the same piece, a consultant cardiologist adds:

“We were arrogant … We thought we had nothing to learn from other countries and thought we were an exceptional case. In fact, we had a lot to learn but didn’t take the opportunity.”

Those are matters of politics – they reflect government decisions or lack thereof.

But it involves a wider shift, leaving behind narcissistic exceptionalism and a self-centred mentality that premises personal success as inevitably at another’s expense. Towards something that recognises that our capacity to think, act and live well is entirely reliant on powerful institutions that nurture, care and support each of us to develop these faculties. That this development is a lifelong project. That the ability to think and deliberate even-handedly and with regard to the well-being of others is democracy’s living strength.

And that when we talk about something like collective well-being and power, we’re talking about taking a path completely out of the political and economic order of the last forty years. Tearing a hole through the fabric of that ‘capitalist realism’ like that mysterious 19th century engraving of the Flammarion, venturing through to the other side. All the environmental and social problems of 2019 are still there, if also concealed by their lockdown: the environment, care, housing, secure jobs. As those listless young folk go into a post-covid job market even worse than the one I graduated in 2008, that anger will not go away.

We’re going somewhere, whether we choose to try to try and steer that or not.  As a woman in the homeless hostel I used to work in once told me, cryptically: ‘change doesn’t happen, change is’.