Hope and fear

Political

‘Hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of men’ – Nietzsche

‘not to laugh at human actions, or mourn them, or curse them, but only to understand them’ – Spinoza

 

The ancient Greeks disliked hope. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes it as a form of wishful thinking indulged in at immense personal risk and cost. ‘Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources’ he writes, but ‘those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colours only when they are ruined’.

The election has been terrible news for many of us. The reaction among friends and relatives has been like Brexit in fact – stunned, anger, despair. I’ve heard lots of blame of the working class; of the English and their racism; of the world outside of London; of human nature. On the vocal Left, which by no means represents all the Left, let alone the wider range of public opinion on politics, that this is a result of a media stitch-up; or quisling centrist commentators; that the party should’ve pushed for Brexit, or instead harder for Remain.

There’s something in these positions, but all miss the mark in my view. It was clear from researching what became Island Story five years ago that there was a very wide gulf between London and the rest of England and Wales. London is the site of all economic, cultural and political power. It has long imposed decisions on the rest of the country which have been resented. To blame the world outside London, or England, reinforces the problem. To blame people for not ‘understanding’ Corbyn is similar. While ideology in the final part explains this election result better than any economic factor, the supposition of false consciousness on the part of the voters is arrogant and deluded.

Because in the final part, for many of the voters who mattered for Labour, this was about the credibility of Corbyn. While many will blame the right-wing press, this credibility had been undermined by his dithering on Brexit and failure to appropriately deal with anti-Semitism in the party, at least going 18 months back. Then, of course, about Brexit and bringing a decisive end to three years of a deeply frustrating deadlock. When the bodies are counted later, these two factors have to be prioritised. The tragedy is that the NHS and the social fabric of the UK will unravel at an increasing rate for the next five years.

One of the common findings of the Island Story work, which the book generally under-reported and avoided discussing because of its disquieting and inconvenient nature, was how immigration dominated most discussions of place and politics all across the country. This had an obvious bearing on the Brexit vote, even if it was one among several factors (Danny Dorling’s research rightly shows that, with Brexit at least, and I would say this result, the drivers were the more affluent middle classes, who make up the majority of the Conservative vote). In the perceptive election coverage of Patrick Kingsley in the New York Times came this insight from Shirebrook, where a massive Sports Direct factory has been built over a former pit:

‘Most residents refused to work in such a degrading environment, so the jobs are largely taken by people from poorer parts of the European Union. In the local consciousness, the concept of regional decline became fused with that of European immigration, instead of neoliberal economics.’

As we’ll know, Dennis Skinner has just lost his seat there to the Tories – a staggering loss (so too Laura Pidcock). But as we’re dealing with ideology, we need to talk about class. Cap-doffing and being allowed to snigger with your betters is a decisive part of the Boris Johnson charm (or any similar aristocrat in public office). The roots of class shame, humility and the need for respectability go back at least to the British establishment’s reaction to the French Revolution in the late 18th century. But with deindustrialisation came a collapse in jobs that evoked pride, and in allied industries and incomes that furnished working class communities. London also experienced deindustrialisation of a similar numerical scale to anything in the North-East over the 1960s-70s – hence the peculiar right-wing politics that marks its outer corridors like the East, to this day. The ‘wounds of class’, as David Smail wrote about from a psychiatric point of view, and later Mark Fisher and Jeremy Seabrook, from a socio-political one. We need someone with the insight and anger of Pierre Bourdieu to explore the psychological and embodied structures of social class in the UK.

Recently, I’ve been teaching a class called ‘Where are we going? Philosophy in the Anthropocene’, where I’ve been outlining and discussing concepts for my next book. Both classes I taught have made a great deal clearer. Collectively, we ended up generally agreeing on the importance of theories of participatory democracy, like Carole Pateman’s, but there was a radical strain throughout which refused to accept any theory of human nature as somehow determining or ‘fating’ politics. The concept of the Anthropocene was rejected in favour of an analysis of political and economic structures, but we were also careful to avoid lazy moralising and pieties about the evils of capitalism that divested ourselves of confronting difficult problems of obligation and responsibility that involve each of us.

The Ancient Greeks subscribed to a view of fate, as did Nietzsche. Amor fati, love of fate he called it – accepting what was necessary, embracing it even. But that position has always been dissatisfying to me and others. To not have hope seems strangely luxurious. Hope is something we need to live, to believe that alternatives are possible and worth pursuing – hence the old Gramsci line everyone knows.

But I am not convinced either that, as Mark Fisher once wrote, after Deleuze, that we should abandon hope. The few convincing accounts of hope in my view have come from the American civil rights movement. Dr King famously said that ‘with this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope’. But I find it more persuasive in the work of James Baldwin. In his “Letter from a region in my mind”, he pleads for hope, even for what is impossible or unrealistic. ‘But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand’, for history ‘testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible’.

Spinoza is generally dismissive of hope. ‘If men could manage all their affairs by a definite plan, or if fortune were always favorable to them’, he writes at the beginning of the Theological-Political Treatise, then none of us would suffer from superstition. But inevitably we encounter adversity. ‘Then’, he says, ‘they usually vacillate wretchedly between hope and fear, desiring immoderately the uncertain goods of fortune’. In the Ethics he writes that hope is an ‘inconstant joy, arising from the image of a thing future or past, of whose outcome we are in doubt’. Being inconstant, it is unreliable, because it based not on a knowledge of actual events but wishful thinking. ‘The more we strive to live according to the guidance of reason’, he writes, ‘the more we strive to depend less on hope, to free ourselves from fear, to conquer fortune as much as we can, and to direct our actions by the certain counsel of reason’.

But despite hope’s unreliability, it is undeniably one of the things that bring together people into communities. In the later Political Treatise, Spinoza describes political change being driven by ‘a common affect of hope, fear or desire to avenge a common loss’. Because hope involves a joy, it is considered more powerful, because a joy is something correlates to an increase in our power of acting. (All the same – simply advocating joy or collective joy isn’t a consistent position in Spinoza – joy does not make us more powerful, joy instead is something we experience when we become more powerful. Empty or transient joys are no good for us, nor is voluntarism. After a rave is the comedown. Collective power is more than collective joy).

But here I think Spinoza is less insightful than Thomas Hobbes, for whom fear has greater general influence in decisions of politics and human affairs. Many of us have seen this – how fear drives people to extraordinary actions, terrible as well as transformational – as I have beside the dying and the bereaved, the addicted, and those trying to fight their way through social services and housing offices. Fear has been a part of this election. Perhaps fear of the Other – but fear of further uncertainty, of the collapse of one’s savings or aspirations to material security, of being governed by someone who does not seem trustworthy.

You will say: Boris Johnson is far more terrifying. And you are right.

Fear will cloud the next few years. Beyond this current election are the wider crisis issues of the environment – food production, the habitability of many parts of the earth, and the wars and many hundreds of millions of climate refugees forecast by the mid-century – and that of the collapse of social care and the necessity of preparing for an ageing and unwell population. There is also the pressing urgency of restoring the social fabric, and I hope that at least some of the canvassers end up exploring work in frontline charity and social support and advice roles, where a real difference can be made to people’s lives.

Fear inhibits collectivity. Fear leads to distrust, contempt for others, and a retreat within. Fear was decisive in Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the rise of totalitarian regimes, in engendering the state of loneliness in which men are ‘deserted by all human companionship’ and feel they can trust no-one.

But fear is not overcome by facile hope. Both are equally uncertain. Fear, in Spinoza’s analysis, which to me remains the best one, is overcome by knowledge of its societal causes. It necessitates what the criminally-underread American philosopher Jane Addams saw as democratic knowledge. ‘All about us are men and women who have become unhappy in regard to their attitude toward the social order itself’, she wrote of working class Chicago, where she was a pioneering social worker at the turn of the 20th century. The challenge for the progressive, for the one who seeks real social transformation, was to develop and enable others to think and act for themselves. This couldn’t be done in a paternalistic, outside-in, top-down way. It meant learning, recognising and becoming part of the same social fabric. This was what she called ‘social morality’. For Carole Pateman, writing of participatory democracy seventy years later, it also necessitates ‘social training’ – a collective education in how and why to participate in community and social life, together. ‘[T]he more individuals participate’, she writes, ‘the better able they become to do so’.

There is an opportunity here for a new kind of participatory social democracy, but it will not become clear for a while. For the Left, simply blaming others is facile, reactionary and likely to lead to a second Johnson term in five years. Recent writing mocking communitarianism has proven to be out of step. But communities, like individuals, are made, not born, as Spinoza says. We will need a new understanding of the social fabric, one that begins to read and think about leading work in sociology and economics. But one, as Jane Addams would stress, that’s rooted in understanding and participating in communities in an open-hearted, democratic way. That remains a powerful opportunity.

Audio essay

Political

royaume-uni

“A tale of two countries” is the title of an audio essay I’ve put together for an exhibition opening today Up North in an abandoned boozer. It’s a rough attempt to try to put across some feelings and ideas about the political and social mood at the moment.

The exhibition, “Will the last person to leave the 20th century please turn out the lights?”, is a journey into the West Yorkshire eerie, bringing together drawings, installations and audio. If you happen to be bowling by Baildon, between Bradford and Otley, it opens today. More info here.

If not, have a listen here.

Thanks goes to John Ledger for inviting me to produce something and for bringing it together.

State of the nation

Political

‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ – Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks.

There are signs that the interregnum may soon be over. An election result few of us dared hope for, a new collective desire not simply hoping but demanding an end to austerity.

Young, not so young and old are coming together, across regions, suburbs and inner-cities, saying enough is enough. No more lies, no more futile elections, no more strong and stable. We don’t want much. An end to debt, an end to uncertainty at work, jobs we want to do, an affordable place to live, teachers for our schools, nurses and carers for when we’re ill, libraries, children’s centres, pubs and local halls re-opened where our communities can come together, a world to pass on to future generations. No more people homeless when luxury apartments go empty, no more food banks, bedroom taxes, benefits sanctions, young minds going to seed in dead-end jobs, no children growing up hungry. A new social contract.

I’ve never been in the practice of fortune-telling, but I’m inspired by these new energies.

I’m speaking at two events this Friday in London, both open to the public, where I’ll explore this new terrain. There’s a great line-up at both and it would be wonderful to be joined by friends.

State of the Nation at Waterstones Piccadilly, 7pm-8.30pm: an evening of readings with novelists and poets including Amanda Craig, Jason Donald, John McCullough and Sarah Moss. £5 entry but includes wine.

Post-Capitalist Desire at the George, Commercial Road, E1 0LA, 9pm-3am (flyer above): a night of interventions, projections, K-punk mixtapes, DJ sets and yuppiedrome occupations (!) brought together by the Savage Messiah collective.

This night looks special, the first in hopefully a series to explore what the late, dearly-missed Mark Fisher touched on in his later writings, ‘acid communism – the spectre of a world that could be free’.

Wish me well for the Owell Prize announcement this Thursday, and looking forward to the conversations and events of the long summer ahead.

 

 

OECD Forum 2017

Political

This week I spoke at the OECD Forum 2017 in Paris about the geographies of discontent, and about my book Island Story.

It was such an unexpected honour to be invited, and the conversations I had over those two days were inspiring, difficult, revelatory and valuable. Find out more about the event and the other speakers here.

Much of it was recorded. Here’s an interview where I discuss Britain’s many island stories, and the next book project…

And a longer panel discussion where I discuss pride, collectivity, distinguishing between cultural and economic factors behind Brexit, and the fascinating case of Cornwall. The other panellists were brilliant, and if you have a moment take a listen to the discussion about trade unions in the US, retraining workers in Denmark, and the valuable work we can all do within our communities:

It was excellent! There’s more photos here and here, and you can join in the conversation after by signing up here.

Orwell Prize Long-list

Political

Island Story has been long-listed for the Orwell Prize for political writing.

It has sneakily gatecrashed into an impressive party. Many thanks to everyone who has enjoyed the book and supported it. Read more about the long-list here.

In tandem, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is being read aloud in its entirety at the Ministry of Truth on 6th June by actors, journalists, and other miscellaneous sorts like myself.

I’m also teaching these over the coming months:

  • For the IF Project’s ‘Thinking Without Borders’ course, I’m lecturing on ‘Power to the People? Populism, Freedom and Self-determination’ on 27th April. IF is a free university in East London, and the free evening course runs bi-weekly from April to July.
  • I’m also giving a 12-week course on ‘The Meanings of Life’ at the Mary Ward Centre, an adult education institute in Holborn, with a good social ethos and low concessions. This beginners’ philosophy class covers Aquinas, Montaigne, Spinoza, Kant, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Bataille, Kafka, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Arendt, and more if I can fit it in (yes!)

Brexit on a bicycle

Political

ns-cover

My article on cycling around the North of England in the aftermath of Brexit has been published this week in the New Statesman.

Based on conversations during my book tour of Island Story, I set out to explain why many working class people voted Brexit. The horizons of political possibility have been hemmed in by economic hardship, I argue, and I look at the roles of work, welfare and insecure housing on how political choices are imagined.

The piece is a little late in its publication! I wrote separately about my journey and its findings for Fair Observer back in October, where I focused on the effects of poverty, debt, and the formation of a new kind of working class, unrepresented by any political party.

While Island Story certainly hasn’t transformed the zeitgeist of the nation, it has had a warm reception. It was reviewed by the Financial Times, the LSE Review of Books, and the Manchester Review of Books. There were interviews with Nottingham’s Left Lion and About Manchester, and it had favourable coverage in the Morning Star and the venerable Wakefield Express. Individually, Natalie Bradbury, John Hutnyk, and John Ledger generously responded to it. It was also book of the week at the London Review Bookshop.

Given its unwieldly length, I applaud anyone who’s read it cover to cover as a worthy companion in an epic adventure.

Island Story tour

Political

 

island

 

The United Kingdom appears less politically or socially stable than at any point in living memory. The confusion caused by a seemingly impossible Brexit vote has left the island with no obvious political direction or gravity. Incoherence is the watchword of the moment. The feeling of defeat that was so palpable in people’s conversations and gestures two years ago during the journey of Island Story repeats itself: failed promises, broken infrastructure, the universality of public dishonesty, and the retreat of many back into familiar pessimism and frustrated anger.

High time to hit the road then. Over ten days I’ll be cycling through and giving talks in Nottingham, Wakefield, Sheffield, Manchester, and Liverpool. Findings from Island Story will be contrasted with talk of today’s politics of island identity. These will be lively, open discussions, and I hope for open-minded participation. All events are free.

Nottingham: Thurs 11th August, Nottingham Contemporary at 6.30. “This is Nottz”.
http://www.nottinghamcontemporary.org/event/nottz

Wakefield: Sat 13th August, Redshed Working Men’s Club, 1pm on. As part of the “Fighting for Crumbs: Art in the Shadow of Neoliberal Britain” week of events.
Fighting For Crumbs (Art in The Shadow of Neoliberal Britain)
https://www.facebook.com/events/1766943633588740/

Sheffield: Sun 14th August, Site Gallery, with Glen Stoker and Anna Chrystal Stephens, 2pm-5pm. “Survey” – a landscape exploration.
http://www.sitegallery.org/archives/10092
https://www.facebook.com/events/530014483854301/

Manchester: Mon 15th August, Friends’ Meeting House, Mount Street, 6pm. “The Island”. Hosted by Manchester Left Writers and Social Sciences Centre Manchester.
https://www.facebook.com/events/1862152284071701/
Reserve tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-island-tickets-26586942260

Liverpool: Weds 17th August, News from Nowhere Bookshop, 6.30pm.
https://www.facebook.com/events/1113607842046631/
http://www.newsfromnowhere.org.uk/noticeboard/bookshopevents/index.php

Come down! Special thanks to David, Sophie, Allie, John, Nick, Steve, Sandra, Maria and Brian.

Radio 4

Political

IMG_20151014_191952491

I had the pleasure this week of appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze, discussing the morality of work. Michael Portillo and Melanie Phillips gave some particularly perceptive questions. You can listen to the programme here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06gs5yh.

On the topic of Radio 4 and self-promotion, I was also interviewed by Tom Holland for the Making Histories show, talking about digital learning and pedagogy. That is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04cc7ck.

Future historians

Political

albionate

Around 37% of voters on 7 May 2015 voted for a Conservative MP, giving the party a majority to form government. The election was, characteristically, defined by an aggressive and well-organised campaign across the national newspapers and broadcasters that effectively produced opinions of economic recovery and SNP menace in the people’s minds. FPTP effectively produced the characteristic result: key marginals and negative voting deciding the outcome (a common position would be “I choose Tory over Labour-SNP, even though I prefer Lib Dem”). The Commons now has some more Conservatives and few Lib Dems; meanwhile the unelected House of Lords and the unelected head of state carry on unperturbed.

Hand-wringing about a rightward shift in public opinion isn’t entirely justified. True, if we incorporate the 12.6% vote for UKIP, which resulted in one MP, and add this to the Conservative vote, then we could, arguably, claim that almost half of voters expressed a right-wing choice. And true, BSA surveys have traced a growing hostility to unregulated immigration, and a growing lack of sympathy to benefits claimants. But as my interviews last summer for Searching for Albion indicated, behind this common opinion are anxieties and struggles about low pay, unaffordable housing and a depressed lack of future. An effective deception-operation has migrants and claimants given as cause, but again I couldn’t say a majority of people I’ve met have taken on all the rhetoric. Questioning the narrative’s inconsistencies soon unravels it (how many migrants/claimants do you know? What proof have you they do this? Maybe instead it’s the case that… Etc.) The power of this operation is regularly indicated in surveys that trace a vast gulf between public polled opinions of various scandal-stories, e.g. number of immigrants, number of Muslims, and their actuality.

Believing that the entire public has taken on Tory myths about a collective negative solidarity over the deficit also seems unwarranted. The collapse of the Labour and Lib Dem vote (to be measured, in fairness, only in Scotland and English suburban/small town marginals) could itself be explained as expressive of a hatred of politicians, and the entrenched opinion that they are not credible, will lie if necessary, and have no relevant life experience. Memories of the Expenses scandal are sharp, and stories of mass surveillance, covered-up child abuse by politicians and newspaper hacking have coagulated into a glug of cynicism and distrust about ‘the Establishment’. Curiously the Lib Dems have been worst hit by this backlash in attempting to present themselves as something alternative. It was always likely that Miliband’s party would’ve collapsed in similar fashion over five years due to its commitment to austerity. But the narrative of Miliband’s rapid demise will probably be rewritten: too socialist, not aspirational enough. But he came across as robotic and fake (“as they all do”), and had no obvious policies. His inability to justify the previous Labour regime’s work in propping up the banking system also didn’t help. But the SNP and UKIP have absorbed the socialism that Miliband could’ve successfully advocated, drawing on trade union and left wing grassroots movements, instead of the bowdlerized hardworking families Blairite schtick.

Spinoza asked ‘why do people fight for their servitude as if for their salvation’? Five years of this government may well result in England and Wales leaving the EU, the loss of the protections of the Human Rights Act rendering employment in the UK an even more precarious experience, the collapse and privatisation of the NHS, the disappearance of social housing, the normalisation of suicides and deaths related to benefits sanctions and poverty, and the mass immiseration of the working class as in-work benefits are cut too. The City of London as a booming tax haven, the future a mess of debt repayments. It’s going to be awful. But it is not popular. So why do people fight for their servitude? Spinoza’s answer was that they do not. Populations are ‘enlisted’, as Frederic Lordon has recently phrased it, into servicing and experiencing the desires of their masters as their own (strong economy, tough on law and order, striking through red tape, punishing scroungers…).

We can read Spinoza, rightly, as a revolutionary. But his point is to understand how this kind of enlistment takes place. Always suspicious of free will, recognising that the ‘self’ was an internalised cultural by-product, Spinoza tells us that ideas and activities are produced by political institutions, languages, histories and customs, and emotional narratives we tell about ourselves. A total change has to capture these institutions, cultures and narratives by producing a unified public movement of its own. A counter-public with the aim of becoming the public. Because power is immanent in Spinoza’s system, models of total revolution or unleashing inner potential won’t help. Discoursing online or in the street, joining an already-arranged march, or voting for an independent left-wing party are good, but not enough. What’s required is this production of real counter-institutions. To aim for success without breaking current frames of reference and creating new ones is impossible. Entryism is an illusion with no proven long-term efficacy; it surprises me that it still remains voguish, though perhaps this reflects the ambitions of various activists thriving in the London media bubble. Producing counter-institutions rather than those with popular disenfranchisement built into them. Inevitably, what’s needed is the ground and virtual ability to counter the state’s violence and media fear operations with a counter-violence and counter-fear. The problem of violence, direct and indirect, faces the oppressed in this country every day, and protesters on occasion. To not have a position on it is to reinforce the status quo. And, above all, it belongs to the young, most disenfranchised of all by FPTP, whose minds are still open and willing to become a new public, one focused on the common good now and of the future.

Spinoza’s interventions into politics in his own life were always too theoretical, often occurring too late, and dangerously jeopardising his own safety. It is unlikely that the English Left will manage to change its ‘fortunes’ by 2020 (again, Spinoza instructs that fortune itself is a form of servitude to events we either refuse or are unable to understand). I’ve no illusions that this inarticulate note will be read by future historians. It felt like a good title. Those that do will already think like me. The same result will be repeated, because it always will, because such opinions and votes are socially produced. But it is not impossible. All things are as difficult as they are rare. The mobilisation of social democracy in Scotland indicates, even in the short-term, an inoffensive, winnable strategy. But facing the Scots after their probable independence in 5-10 years, and the dispersed English Left at the moment now, is what next?

Departing

Political, Travel

england

Last night has now eaten into this morning, and here I am with my empty bottles and missing time, making a half-hearted attempt at an audit. Let’s spare the scribbles and agree that there’s a certain pleasure in always being busy and late for things. But it’s not always that delightful. J.G. Ballard’s right: in the heat of beating some deadline, there’s a certain masochism at the source of our pleasure. Masochism, mania and melancholia are at the root of most endeavours so insane that, without rational explication, they have to be done. Beyond an extraordinary detail to dramatic scenes, there is no greater quality in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky than a reflection on the masochistic promises of romance,  a romance that fails to deliver, and by its failure, delivers so much more.

In two months time by my reckoning I will be in Glasgow, having cycled anticlockwise around the British mainland, with lengthy digressions into the Midlands and Peak District. Sleeping in parks, pedaling up lung-bursting heights and keeping up with the heavy-drinkers of England and Scotland will no doubt reduce my capacity for wireless fidelity internet, but I will record what I can at http://www.searchingforalbion.com. The site will be a cabinet of curiosities as I pass through places, a record of what I see and hear. It will get a smaller readership than the kind of top 10 lists that represents the best of online journalism. The goal is to indicate how simple and interesting it is to travel.

I often reach for the strong stuff when I write – rousing invective, political polemic, some worthy social goal. Zzz. I’m bored with the thoughts in my own head, and with those of others. I’ve studied history and political philosophy and had prizes for my essays, yet I’m advancing little beyond the predictable views that constitute a mainstream in universities and an aloof left media out of touch with popular cultures. Most people I meet talking about the working-class and the need for revolution come across as middle-class and conservative, righteous reformers of a Methodist hue. Good intentions and reforms reflect the vanities of those that seek to justify them.

Many prefer not being told what to do. How long it has taken me to accept this.

It’s not just a London problem, granted. But I’m throwing myself out of my sphere in the aim of discovering, for once, what I don’t know. No research plan or campaign message attached. The university isn’t the best place to think about new formations of equal, just and secure democracies. Instead of churning out more elitist articles or adding more words to a thesis destined for a recycle bin, let’s see where being out in the world goes. Probably nowhere. Looks like I’ve already managed to type around 500 words of the usual self-righteous balls I go for. I leave tomorrow morning.

http://www.searchingforalbion.com