The Human Prison: A review of John Berger’s “Meanwhile”

John Berger is an English art critic and cultural theorist known best – if at all – for his 1972 book Ways of Seeing – a work written partly in homage to Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In 2008 Drawbridge Books published an essay of his called, simply, Meanwhile, which attempts to look at our historical age as we live it – an impossible task.

As Berger rightly noticed, descriptions of history need words, words need definitions, definitions need figurative images to serve as landmarks and without landmarks “there is the great human risk of turning in circles”. The landmark, as Berger notes, that he has found, to define our age, “is that of prison.”

The advent of the penitentiary, so Michel Foucault once noted, was linked to industrial production, “its factories and its utilitarian philosophy.” Time has not stood still. And neither has the world – which has come to be defined by capital relations. Thus, Berger notes in today’s era of globalisation, it is not industrial, but financial capital which has informed the logic of criminality and imprisonment. The utilitarianism of the pentientiary, of which Berger mediates, put specially selected individuals – criminals – under surveillance, while the dawn of new financial instruments and global logics of capital have emerged at the same time as surveying us all – hence prison being the landmark that defines our age. We are all imprisoned.

As Guy Debord, French Situationist writer, once noticed, via the Swiss urbanist and architect Le Corbusier, “commuting time … is a surplus labor which correspondingly reduces the amount of “free” time”. A mere modernist pseudo-problem in hindsight. In the dystopian, postmodernist, neo-liberal, late capitalist world imagined by Berger, the worker never enjoys free time, owing to finite free space – since all space is de-centralised financial capital, locked into a consumerist Arcadia. While “[s]peculative financial transactions add up, each day, to 1,300 billion dollars” as Berger points out, “[t]he prison is now as large as the planet and its allotted zones vary and can be termed worksite, refugee camp, shopping mall, periphery, ghetto, office block, favela, suburb. What is essential is that those incarcerated in these zones are fellow prisoners.”

Berger obviously foresees drab things for the immigrant worker. In an American context, he ponders upon the criminalisation of the Mexican worker, but of course it is not overseen the neoliberal agenda of the global oil industry – unable to be properly contained by any major government or power, and cynically, never being in that power’s interests. However, the faddish crux of neoliberalism has possibly made Berger cautious not to speak wildly on the green agenda. Marxist writers specifically in the wake (or shadow) of Frederic Jameson such as Terry Eagleton or Alex Callinicos have all picked up upon the ruinous corporate exploitation of natural resources, and indeed nature; but the more eagle eyed writer like John Gray – still steeped in enough cynicism – notices that out of the green agenda is a market as well as a set of life-saving moral predicates. On this very basis, it is not out of the reach of conglomerates to “green up” – faddishness, to say the least, is a necessary and almost obligatory component of late capitalism. The deal which capitalism, and its state sanctioned protectors, have been unable yet to settle is how to cope with human flight when vast areas of land, and indeed whole countries, start to become uninhabitable and undernourished owing to global warming. The oil business, it would seem, is designing its own type of worker, who Berger believes neoliberalism has rewritten as “hidden criminal” – that is a criminal as a consequence of natural catastrophe and illegal immigration.

The prison which Berger has designated as our current lot is actually free of indoctrination, but authorities will do their best to misinform. Being tuned in to new technologies, cyberspace is a means with which (mis)information is channelled in order that indoctrination is rendered quite pointless. But here, forgets Berger, is a space to subordinate that misinformation. While our only power online may be to apprehend information when its too late – consider for example the realisation, tonight in fact, that the US has the power to close down a global payment system, with disastrous effects – knowledge is power. Wikileaks, if it has achieved nothing else, has shown itself to be locked in a power struggle – this does not spell the dawn of a new hegemony, from the bottom up, but at least frames the struggle as equals at war, whereas before the powerless were expected to fend off the advances of the powerful. Wikileaks is a gamechanger; but what we now realise about the game, is that the powerless could gain power without actually subordinating the existing status quo – something hitherto overlooked, not understated.

Freedom and liberty however is separate from power entirely, and it seems as though Berger is far more willing to accept that in our prison we can be free. As he notes “[f]or prisoners, small visible signs of nature’s continuity have always been, and still are, a covert encouragement”. This can simply be read as a question of contrast; small changes mean more to the prisoner than massive changes do to he who is free. So given that the issue with our historic place, our prison, is the lack of free space, we must forge such a space free from the trappings of capitalism. The problem some will have with this is the same problem many have with Naomi Klein’s books – she seems to be happy and content with the communalist existence of space subordinate to capitalism, which already still renders capitalism existent. In fact within the faculties of late capitalism, or postmodernist capitalism, such communalism is actively encouraged, since subordination is commodifiable. It almost seems as if there is no hope. Berger’s essay concludes by saying: “[l]iberty is slowly being founded not outside but in the depths of the prison”. It sounds like the conclusion of so many disillusioned voices post-Cold War; it’s almost impossible not to feel its ferocity.

http://twitter.com/paulstpancras/status/16225667674804224

John Berger is an English art critic and cultural theorist known best for his 1972 book Ways of Seeing – a work written partly in homage to Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In 2008 Drawbridge Books published an essay of his called, simply, Meanwhile, which attempts to look at our historical age as we live it – an impossible task.

As Berger has rightly noticed, descriptions of history need word, words need definitions, definitions need figurative images to serve as landmarks and without landmarks “there is the great human risk of turning in circles”. The landmark, as Berger notes, that he has found, to define our age, “is that of prison.”

The advent of the penitentiary, so Michel Foucault once noted, was linked to industrial production, “its factories and its utilitarian philosophy.” Time has not stood still. And neither has the world – which has come to be defined by capital relations. Thus, Berger notes in today’s era of globalisation, it is not industrial, but financial capital which have informed the logic of criminality and imprisonment. The utilitarianism of the pentientiary, of which Berger mediates, put specially selected individuals – criminals – under surveillance, while the dawn of new financial instruments and global logics of capital have emerged at the same time as surveying us all – hence prison being the landmark that defines our age. We are all imprisoned.

As Guy Debord, French Situationist writer, once noticed, via the Swiss urbanist and architect Le Corbusier, “commuting time … is a surplus labor which correspondingly reduces the amount of “free” time”. A mere modernist pseudo-problem in hindsight. In the dystopian, postmodernist, neo-liberal, late capitalist world imagined by Berger, the worker never enjoys free time, owing to finite free space – since all space is de-centralised financial capital, locked into a consumerist Arcadia. While “[s]peculative financial transactions add up, each day, to 1,300 billion dollars” as Berger points out, “[t]he prison is now as large as the planet and its allotted zones vary and can be termed worksite, refugee camp, shopping mall, periphery, ghetto, office block, favela, suburb. What is essential is that those incarcerated in these zones are fellow prisoners.”

Berger obviously foresees drab things for the immigrant worker. In an American context, he ponders upon the criminalisation of the Mexican worker, but of course it is not overseen the neoliberal agenda of the global oil industry – unable to be properly contained by any major government or power, and cynically, never being in that power’s interests. However, the faddish crux of neoliberalism has possibly made Berger cautious not to speak wildly on the green agenda. Marxist writers specifically in the wake (or shadow) of Frederic Jameson such as Terry Eagleton or Alex Callinicos have all picked up upon the ruinous corporate exploitation of natural resources, and indeed nature; but the more eagle eyed writer like John Gray – still steeped in enough cynicism – notices that out of the green agenda is a market as well as a set of life-saving moral predicates. On this very basis, it is not out of the reach of conglomerates to “green up” – faddishness, to say the least, is a necessary and almost obligatory component of late capitalism. The deal which capitalism, and its state sanctioned protectors, have been unable yet to settle is how to cope with human flight when vast areas of land, and indeed whole countries, start to become uninhabitable and undernourished owing to global warming. The oil business, it would seem, is designing its own type of worker, who Berger believes neoliberalism has rewritten as “hidden criminal” – that is a criminal as a consequence of natural catastrophe and illegal immigration.

The prison which Berger has designated as our current lot is actually free of indoctrination, but authorities will do their best to misinform. Being tuned in to new technologies, cyberspace is a means with which (mis)information is channelled in order that indoctrination is rendered quite pointless. But here, forgets Berger, is a space to subordinate that misinformation. While our only power online may be to apprehend information when its too late – consider for example the realisation, tonight in fact, that the US has the power to close down a global payment system – knowledge is power. Wikileaks, if it has achieved nothing else, has shown itself to be locked in a power struggle – this does not spell the dawn of a new hegemony, from the bottom up, but at least frames the struggle as equals at war, whereas before the powerless were expected to fend off the advances of the powerful. Wikileaks is a gamechanger; but what we now realise about the game, is that the powerless could gain power without actually subordinating the existing status quo – something clearly that hitherto has been overlooked not understated.

Freedom and liberty however is separate from power entirely, and it seems as though Berger is far more willing to accept that in our prison we can be free. As he notes “[f]or prisoners, small visible signs of nature’s continuity have always been, and still are, a covert encouragement”. This can simply be read as a question of contrast; small changes mean more to the prisoner than massive changes do to he who is free. So given that the issue with our historic place, our prison, is the lack of free space, we must forge such a space free from the trappings of capitalism. The problem some will have with this is the same problem many have with Naomi Klein’s books – she seems to be happy and content with the communalist existence of space subordinate to capitalism, which already still renders capitalism existent. In fact within the faculties of late capitalism, or postmodernist capitalism, such communalism is actively encouraged, since subordination is commodifiable. It almost seems as if there is no hope. Berger’s essay concludes by saying: “[l]iberty is slowly being founded not outside but in the depths of the prison”. It sounds like the conclusion of so many disillusioned voices post-Cold War; it’s almost impossible not to feel its ferocity.

 

So-called left wing unity and the Spanish Civil War

By some accounts Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has blamed “English anarchists” for the Europe-wide discontent, while he addressed Italy’s Senate yesterday. It’s doubtful he is referring specifically to a small number of die hard Kroptkinites or even try hard “black flaggers” whose only knowledge of anarchism is through the lyrics of the Dead Kennedy’s. Who I suspect he is referring to is the student movement itself – proof, if any were needed, that their organisation and mobilisation is starting to put the willies up the establishment.

Much to its credit, the movement has been largely self-motivated, dealing with operations in small collectives. One of the consequences of this has been a widening separation between the National Union of Students leadership – under Aaron Porter – and the wider anti-cuts student movement in general. As far as effectiveness is concerned, whether or not Porter has publicly backed the students has not been a problem. However where there have been problems is in Porter’s “dithering” as to whether student occupations can rely on him for his support – which would make a difference to student representatives when present in a court of law – his inability to properly condemn heavy handed police tactics and whether legal aid is readily available to them.

In a comment I left at the Liberal Conspiracy blog yesterday, some people were quick to remind me just how expensive such a promise on legal aid would be – which it is hard to disagree with. However it was not me who promised it. If the disparity between what the NUS can afford and how much legal costs are is so high, why would someone, presumably in a position to know both amounts, make a promise like that. The efforts by many students to drive Porter out is based not upon a far leftist instinct to sectarianism, but on the question of leadership competence – which it looks increasingly as though Porter is lacking in (for a wry take on Porter’s failing leadership do take a look at Latte Labour blog).

One reason to oppose this ousting attempt is in faithfulness to something called “left unity” – brought to the fore recently by Sunny Hundal. In his piece on the “plot” to pass a no-confidence motion against Porter, he cites four reasons to oppose such attempts taking place: 1) It’s not a sensible move strategically at a time when the movement as a whole needs to be united, so as to be more effective; 2) it’s too early, particularly given that only a small proportion of students have taken part in an occupation; 3) the leadership is not actually getting in the way of the students wanting to take direct action; 4) if the no-confidence motion fails then it has only served to cause tension.

I’ve already taken into consideration the third point above, the second point doesn’t seem true within the ranks of the mobilised student movements involved, or previously involved, in university occupations, for whom the time for precise and dedicated action is now, and the need for adequate leadership is vital, and to point number four, the same could be said about any attempt – this certainly is no way in which to judge whether to act or not; as the American poet and Spanish Republican supporter Archibald MacLeish once said: “The man who refuses to defend his convictions, for fear he may defend them in the wrong company, has no convictions.”

As of Hundal’s first point, we get this age old adage “left unity”. But what does that actually mean? And how can we be certain unity on the left is not slightly arbitrary?

To explore this, what better subject is there than the Spanish Civil War. It has been said that “The Spanish Revolution is an object lesson, in the negative, of the need to forge revolutionary workers parties of the Bolshevik type.” The reason this could be said by a Spartacist front is because for them the Spanish Civil War was destined to fail on the grounds that the main left wing group (or the one considered principally most broad) were too willing to flirt with right wing workers and peasantry unions as well as bourgeois capitalist party systems in Catalonia. The origins of the POUM (Partido Obrero Unificación Marxista) – to whom George Orwell was joined when he fought in the war – already passed through phases of splinters and cells before properly coming to fruition. Andres Nin – who was murdered on the 22nd June 1937 by Stalinists – originally fell out with Leon Trotsky for opposing the move for the ICE (Communist Left of Spain), affiliated with the Trotsky founded ILO (International Left Opposition), to become entryists in the Spanish Socialist Youth, instead desiring to unite with the BOC (Workers and Peasants Bloc – considered on the right wing of the Communists). Eventually Nin founded the POUM, after which he was accused by Trotsky of “veer[ing] between reform and revolution” (it has also been stated that Nin curbed the revolutionary subjectivity of the workers in the POUM – whose fault it was not that they had such a lousy leader).

The actors in the Spanish Civil War knew who it was they wanted to keep from power – the mess of anti-Communists, Fascists and anti-Masonic, anti-Semitic Catholics who composed the Falange founded in 1933 by José Antonio Primo de Rivera – but what they wanted to achieve in the event of a victory was quite unsure. This issue had been dealt in a particularly diplomatic way between anarchists and Bolsheviks. As Trotsky himself had said on 17 December 1937 in a work called Lesson of Spain: The Last Warning, the anarchist workers joined on the Bolshevik road to revolution, but opposed the goals. The problems became far worse when questions started to arise as to whether this was a civil war at all or a revolution? Most groups involved agreed that defeating the fascists was the most pressing task. But even in the programme of the POUM the steps post-victory were towards a dictatorship of the proletariat – demonstrating it’s avowedly Leninist position. This didn’t sit particularly easy with the Stalinists, for whom worker power is a dangerous tool. It’s hardly surprising that many Stalinists, as well as Stalin himself, were to be considered counter-revolutionary, but it is slightly more surprising that the POUM were, and still are, themselves considered counter-revolutionary by cells of Trostkyites, Fifth Internationalists and anarchists.

Orwell fled as the in-fighting between Stalinists and Trostkyites took a turn towards extreme violence and loss of life (he was actually shot in the neck by some Communists). In spite of this Orwell chose to focus on the so-called Spanish character in his account of the war, Homage to Catalonia, as the reason why the Republicans did not succeed. The foremost scholar of the period Professor Paul Preston criticised Orwell for his lazy analysis of the disorganised Spaniard, instead looking towards other factors which explain why the Republicans couldn’t get the better of the enemy. One possible reason is that they spent too much time fighting themselves. However this may have been a necessary evil; after all if they hadn’t argued the toss about what post-victory looked like then, it would have been necessary to do it during the revolutionary period – whereby the infighting would’ve rendered their governance weak.

Actors in the civil war against Franco included PSUC (Catalonia United Socialist Party); FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation); POUM; CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo) as well as anarchists, Communists, Socialists, Reformists, Liberals and everything in between in Barcelona. It is possible to gather these groups to a common purpose, but for a common goal it’s not possible, nor desirable (as a Socialist, I feel absolutely no need to want to bargain with anarchists for example). Stalinists were ideologically geared towards ruining the efforts of those actors, be that through in-fighting or providing gash weaponry from the USSR (it was Trotsky who accused Nin of being too hostile towards the Soviets, though had Trotsky listened to Nin, Stalinsim wouldn’t have been as relevant as it was to the war effort, and both men may have survived death at Stalin’s hands – another of history’s ironies), but real problems had already entered the consciousness’ of all involved – how was left unity possible when “the left” has never been linked to a set of coherent ideas/strategy? Why is it that it seems quite natural to call for unity on the left, when in fact for most of the time many of what counts for left wing ideas are in conflict with one another (something Sunny Hundal must realise, since a lot of his criticism has been directed at what he calls the “far left” who still are, whether we like it or not, on the left).

To draw this back to the original argument, about students wanting to see the back of Aaron Porter, and Sunny Hundal’s (frequent) call for left unity, first of all their call does not represent in-fighting, it has to do with the competence of their union leader. As for left unity, inasmuch as you can sit people down as diverse as anarchists and liberals in the debate against fees, it’s foreseeable that we can agree to a common enemy, but ridiculous to suggest aims and goals can be settled between these people. The problem in the Spanish Civil War among left wing actors was that post-victory apprehensions seeped through prematurely – but perhaps that was inevitable. Anyone who believes the problem with the students today is of left unity is wrong, but perhaps such a concept is a myth anyway.

An email to my local MP

I felt it necessary to email my local MP, Stephen Metcalfe (Con), of Basildon and Billericay. It went as follows:

Hello,

I’m a local of yours, I live in Rectory Park Drive in Pitsea, I hope that if you are voting tomorrow afternoon on fee changes for students that you’ll vote no. The levels of debt that face students after their degree are beginning to get disturbing – I’m not sure I would’ve gone to university were I given such a bill (and already I am in £12,000 debt, for goodness knows how long). It’s not a party political debate in my opinion, some of the progressive Conservative literature I have seen promotes a savings culture for all, so as we all can become recapitalised and not generationally indebted to lenders. A vote against fee rises ensures that a savings culture begins, and the debt culture ends.

As knowledge work becomes the dominating force in this country, and GDP relies on it all the more, degrees in their many forms – arts, humanities, sciences – will be vital; to want to help enrich this country in times where growth is an issue, prospective students should not be fined for their efforts but rewarded. As my experience has shown, a degree in itself does not guarantee a person a job, and even if you are lucky enough to find one, the chances of reaching the average graduate wage packet are questionable (which is higher than £21K). What has been absent from many discussions on fee change is how much social capital degrees have. On this basis alone, I’d appeal to your heartstrings, and ask you vote no. Plus, abstaining is for liberals.

Carl Packman

Tuition fee changes are problematic in so many ways

Irony was not lost on me reading a recent article in Standpoint magazine by Jonathan Bate, on the “costly idea of a new university”. Jeremy Bentham – whose name has been used by the room I’m sitting in, while it is occupied by UCL students – was used as an example of someone with a fine mind, but whose impact “was minimal”. The point being that out of this great mind, the world has seen relatively small returns, if you were to consider that on the back of book sales. This was not an original point, nor was it meant to be. John Stuart Mill had been the one to observe this, yet whether he made this a way of justifying further marketising further education, like Bate seemed to be attempting to do, is anyone’s guess – though I’m not going to bank on it.

The article advances the view that not everyone is entitled to higher education. For Bate, unlike junior and senior levels of education or other provisions such as healthcare, it is not cost-effective to have it as a free for all. Not only do we need plumbers – who seem to be exemplified as a low skilled, uneducated worker in Bate’s article – but the amount of money, in the form of public taxation, going into the further education system will not be nearly as beneficial as some would want to make out.

Bate notes that the proportion of young people in higher education has risen, as if this fact were a direct correlation on the drop in manual labourers. He kindly allows for the public understanding that society benefits from degree educated professionals such as doctors – but generally the article misses the entire point. Top-up fees for Bate, as well as for both the Labour and Tory parties (at least), represents the proportion of money the government should not have to pay, on account that better considered degrees – such as in medicine – are worth far more, in addition to the amount universities can’t/won’t afford to pay, since caps have been put on all higher education study – which is made up for in larger classes and less one-on-one time.

One of the perverse effects of the rise in tuition fees, according to Birkbeck Professsor Claire Callender, is that the more financial aid a university has to fork out for an individual student – accounting for the decreasing amount government has to put in – the less attractive the student is for a university. The issue of free higher education for all who want it is of course very important, but moreover, in a system where the amount of top up fees a prospective student can pay decides on whether that person is financially solvent for the university is extremely problematic. For Callender, this represents the current model of US higher education.

The initial problematic remains; the marketisation of university will mean prospective students choose subjects on a utilitarian basis – what will be the most enticing for employers, or rather, what prospective students imagine will be most enticing for employers – rather than universities being institutions of knowledge. Taking grant cuts into consideration, humanities and art subjects will become fewer, this will start to impact upon research in this area, and Britain’s importance on an international scale will become stagnant. But furthermore students will feel less inclined to get themselves into tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt in universities that aren’t in the upper deciles, institutions will merge, the less lucky ones will fold. This is in addition to how much debt an individual student can expect to be in after their course, which will crush any chance of a future savings culture of any worth – lest I mention the scrapped child trust fund.

This move, supported by most Ministers in the government, has many implications and consequences. Tonight student movements around the country will be making final adjustments to their work before Parliament goes to vote tomorrow. This work will include ringing the parliamentary offices of noted MPs, writing letters to newspapers, pressuring universities’ management to condemn the cuts agenda, and the war the government is waging on higher education institutions in general. Tomorrow is of course a day of action – it is the determination of this movement – composed of many who will not be directly affected by the changes to fees – which proves the urgency to take a stand against proposed changes.

Assange debate has nothing to do with feminist men selling out – it’s a different compulsion

I’ve read just about everything you could want on Julian Assange now – and I’ve reached my own conclusion. But first we should break down other opinions on the blogosphere. On 21 August of this year Dave Allen Green on his Jack of Kent blog cleared up one or two things when he said “we must be careful not to jump to the conclusion that it must be a smear.” Of course for the unthinking conspiratorial minded among us, this has to be a smear. Assange, after all, is undercutting US hegemony, utilising internet tools and creating bottom up power. Politicians talk about civic empowerment, and deliberative/participatory democracy, but when it actually happens they get nervous – was Assange simply on the receiving end of this?

As Andy Newman at Socialist Unity blog has said perhaps Assange has been caught up in a CIA honeytrap – which has got under the skin of Louise, who rightly points out that “We don’t know the full story. Wait for the full story, wait to see the evidence tested in court.” This brings us back to Green’s point; due process dictates this: one is innocent until proven guilty. Newman’s honeytrap represents precisely the compulsion to seek perfect narratives where such narratives are absent. But perhaps this is not his fault; after all it looks dodgy – but I’m on the side of Louise and Green, lets leave the theories at home, and await results from the trial.

In the mean time another debate has taken place between Cath Elliot and Sunny Hundal relating to a rubbish article written by John Band (Cath actually has a full account of her debate with Sunny on twitter, which I have now read, and immediately agreed with the last statement: “Now can we all please move on.”). This seems to relate to the terms of the debate of rape. Elliot worries that men on the left – so-called feminists – are too quick jumping at the conclusion that women are wrong when it comes to calling on rape. This is perhaps a simplified way to summarise the debate, but in any case it misses one, aforementioned, point; the left wing, feminist men are probably consumed by the timing of the allegation, with prior knowledge of CIA attempts to try and silence critics and dissenters, rather than trying to downplay the serious allegations made against Assange.

No male feminist I have ever met has ever tried to question what counts as rape in a way unpalatable – but the cynic in me thinks the problem here is men trying to define rape at all, which sticks in the throat of some feminists. Perhaps this is justified, but I fail to see how. Some of the comments on a blog entry by Dawn Foster, for the F for Philistine blog, call into question use of the word rape (this is what stung Andy Newman and John Band). See for example this comment by Soeren Passer:

Well described post and content.

But I disagree with you wholeheartedly – how can you justify that having sex willingly with someone, going on record that it was consensual and then still charge him with rape because you regretted your own actions? Sexual misconduct if you must press the issue of unprotected sex – consensual unprotected sex – and now that is being considered rape?

If a woman has the right to change her mind AFTER sex, then the man should have the option of deciding whether an accidental pregnancy should be aborted without input from the woman…. ponder that for a second.

I know that is an extreme and completely irrational example but so is being able to charge someone with rape because the woman regretted having consensual sex days after it happened. Remember that both women are on official police record stating that all the sex was consensual.

The reason people are so busy acquitting him for rape is because THERE WAS NO RAPE. To state otherwise is basically admitting stupidity.

Also one of the women has a blog and on this blog she posted a guide who to use the Swedish laws to charge someone with fake rape. That is just facts and from the “horse’s own mouth” so to say.

Let me be clear – I think real rape is unforgiving and I cannot imagine the horrors rape victims go through – but to call what happened between Julian Assange and the two women rape is belittling the real victims of rape.

This is the point at which leftist men might “sell out”. While trying to say this is a smear from the US, they feel almost obliged to call into question the rape allegations, in order to fit the narrative. Not necessarily in a way that questions “female accounts” – we’re not in a Saudi court here – but in a way that wonders whether there has been US intimidation involved, or something similar.

My own conclusion is as follows: it is bad timing, all true, but due process is so very important. Perhaps it’s not below the US to do something like this, perhaps the women filing an allegation are telling porkies or have changed their mind, perhaps Swedish law has some homework to do. Perhaps. We simply do not know. Making these facile little narratives add up to each other is a task not worth falling out with each other about. For reasons I have mentioned, I don’t think feminist men eventually sell out women in the end, this could be geared towards other compulsions we have, and not just feminist men, everyone, and that is desiring a narrative that fits. Lets all keep our hair on, and not fall out about this. Really.

How to define Phillip Blond politically

Yesterday has proved to be the day when Conservative Party managers, including Steve Hilton, turned their back on the Red Tory Phillip Blond for what they call his “progressive nonsense” (something Guido the un-chido is delighted about [h/t Richard].

On twitter this has kickstarted the conversation on where to place Blond on the political map – a task most people will agree is very difficult (unless of course you are Paul Sagar).

On 1 July this year I had the good fortune to interview Mr Blond, with my then colleague Katy, for an in-house magazine I was working on. The subject matter was how to revise the social care system now that the public sector was undergoing a fiscal tightening, and in particular whether Blond felt there was a case for public spending as a means of investing for the future. We did get sidetracked a number of times, but mainly we stayed on task.

I mentioned a spending strategy to him known as spending to save, something popularised recently in a New Economics Foundation report entitled Backing the Future – where it is mentioned that more spending and investment in children and young people could potentially save the UK £486 billion in the future. Blond replied that “As a rule public expenditure is very hard to, as it were, use revenue expenditure in the way that has a capital effect, if you see what I mean, because this is in fact capital expenditure, but in a social framework”.

Blond continued: “We haven’t yet really, in terms of the state, found a way to capitalise, if you like, or put into the capital expenditure stream, money that come, that we have to fund in an income way, so there’s always a hill or a mountain that requires financing, and that’s what in essence tends to prevent these things happening.” In keeping with Blond’s vision, to recapitalise the poor so they can enjoy asset-wealth and a long term savings culture, it is his contention that the state and it’s expenditure has little chance of having an effect on capital creation, but worse than that, in essence money that comes into being through income seldom finds itself in the capital expenditure stream. It sounds as though this is inherent to public expenditure, and since that is in conflict with Blond’s overall project, it may be the case that the future of capitalism for him leaves the state in the shadows.

One of the things that gains Blond the label “progressive” is his insistence on spreading out, and decentralising capital, in order that whole communities don’t suffer generations of poverty. Really, Blond despises the fact that wealth stays at the top, and makes no bones about saying as much. On the subject he told me that “[i]f you look at manufacturing there is no lending to manufacturing in this country, inordinate percentages of our lending goes into private residential housing stock, rather than into creating the business infrastructure for private sector growth. So the key thing would be to stop the centralisation of capital, and the state insurance function, the state has helped to centralise capital by insuring investment banking activity, and by insuring investment banking activity, what they do is lose the risk for investment, but of course capital goes to where there is the highest return, the greatest degree of security, if the government insures your activity, your speculative activity, then you’re in a win-win situation, which is what they are doing.”

The problem of the state here, for Blond, is twofold; 1) the state helps the centralisation of capital; 2) it secures dodgy speculative activity. His solution: remove the state insurance function – it is no good for private sector growth and centralises capital, thus puts up barriers to the recapitalisation of the poor.

I asked Blond whether he felt the economy could afford a spending model based on the spend now save later? Blond firmly replied: “I mean no one in the world, anyone serious, thinks you can have an economy run by the public sector. Who thinks that? Not even Karl Marx thought that. And the reason you can’t, is that the public sector itself is not a generator of wealth. It’s a maintainer of wealth, but it is a good that needs other good to come with it, and the goods to come with it, all predicated on the back of private sector growth. Unless you can have private sector growth, you can’t generate the taxes, the tax base, you won’t reduce unemployment, you can’t do anything. But you can’t finance yourself into a deeper hole and think that will deliver.”

At this stage you get the feeling that Blond doesn’t simply think the state is currently doing a bad job at harnessing private sector growth, but that the state in itself frustrates the very mechanisms the private sector was created to operate. In response to a question on whether we will ever be able to promote a spend to save model, post-recession, Blond reminds us that he is “just very doubtful of the role of the state in this country. I just don’t think it is an effective vehicle for anything really, or for anything very much. Often the state is left picking up the pieces of the destruction of civil society. The key decisive move is to have civil society to answer these problems, because civil society is a self-correcting entity, as soon as you associate you’re much healthier and much better things happen; the key task is to allow civil society take over from the state. Where a period in society where civil society and the state works, but that’s a different thing. So if you are in Denmark or Scandinavia where the state is an expression of a strong civil society, they can work much better together in a symbiosis. But we’re not in that position in this country, where in a position where the state and the market have both annihilated society, so we actually, as a precondition of an effective state, and an effective market, we need to rebuild association.”

He is obviously very romantic with regards to the state, but one is left wondering whether this symbiosis between state and market, which he speaks of here, is well considered at all. If Blond cannot see the role of the state in this country as an effective vehicle for anything, as well as slavishly clearing up the mess of the destruction of civil society, what worth for him is there in keeping state functions at all?

The state, for Blond, will only work, as he reminds me, “ on the basis on the sort of society I’m arguing for” – which is where it plays as little part in society as is possible.

Blond ends by saying “[t]he great agent of the creation of the poor is the state, and the market has been captured by oligarchs, or oligopolies and monopolies, which then follows rent-seeking behaviour, that essentially destroys the life chances of everyone else.” Blond uses unfamiliar rhetoric to many used to simple left/right divides, but essentially we can see where he is coming from; the state has been implicated in the concentration of wealth, just as much as markets have, which also favour vast riches within small elites.

The type of society Blond wants to see is one where capital is dispersed further – but in order to do this the state is a hindrance, not an example. It is no secret that Blond holds a social conservatism, in part related to his Christian world-view, in part as reaction to what he calls the social relativism of liberalism. Additionally, the state holds a romantic, symbolic place in society, but often frustrates the good society. For this reason there is an element to which he can be labelled a civic republican of sorts, but for me this doesn’t quite cut the mustard; I fear his dislike of the state’s functions goes a little further. Therefore in Blond I see a notable essence of paleolibertarianism – an amount which cannot be ignored.

Another important day for the student movement

It was quite clear from the start that students against cuts to higher education had many politicians to persuade, if not because those politicians were dyed in the wool cutters, but because there was a political game to be played. This is why Vince Cable said he would abstain from the vote. The fact that this game is failing may be why Cable will now see tuition fee reform through.

The game that John Hemmings, on the other hand, is playing is the one aptly named “silly beggars”. He wants to punish the students occupying his office by voting for tuition fees – perhaps irony fails him, but raising fees upwards of £9,000 a year, and slashing the teaching grant from higher education by 80% is punishing all students, as well as making sure some young people are put off higher education altogether.

The focus until now has been to persuade Liberal Democrat MPs on the vote. This excellent research piece by Tom Griffin, journalist and blogger on the Green Ribbon, shows the divide in voting intentions this Thursday, and proves just why student activists have put much of their attention towards them. On the other hand, against many of the odds, some Tory MPs are emerging from the woodwork to pledge their opposition to reform. As Liberal Democrat councillor Tim Starkey has said:

Whilst student anger has been focussed on Lib Dem MPs, it has been quietly forgotten that 4 Tory MPs also signed the pledge. By extraordinary co-incidence two of them were offered jobs as parliamentary private secretaries this week – Ben Wallace (Wye and Preston) – who had already U-turned on the issue – and Lee Scott (Ilford South). As recently as 13th November Lee said “I’ve never been one to sit on the fence…I’m not going to vote for a rise in tuition fees”. Will he stick to this now? Of the other two Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) seems to have gone back on his pledge and Bob Blackman (Harrow East) has gone very quiet on the subject.

Lee Scott MP received a lot of attention from opposition parties and student organisations when it appeared as if he’s waiver, but he told Redbridge Guardian that he “has never sat on the fence” and that he is “not going to be voting for a rise in tuition fees.” But the real excitement has come from David Davis MP tonight, who becomes the first senior Tory to say he will vote against changes. Sky News, who have just broke the story have said:

Davis “sent an email, which has been seen by Sky News, to a student which says: “I am going to vote against this proposal.”

The MP appears to tell the student to “save your time” and not bother lobbying him against the policy.

Laura Kuenssberg, the Chief Political Correspondent for the BBC News Channel, has asked whether “any of his colleagues join him?” The answer may well be yes. It is now incumbent upon the student movement to marry their lobbying of Lib Dems with similar work on Tories – once seen as a task not worth the energy. Furthermore, Jack Tindle, a second year Government and History student at the LSE, who said in a tweet that “A round of applause [greeted] the news that David Davis will vote against tuition fees” certainly gives the impression that students will not be short-sighted about who they choose to engage with – which is a different impression given by others who suggest anti-fee rise campaigners have been too picky with who they’ve sought support from.

Tonight will certainly be an important night for the student movement. Not only have art students from all over London began occupying the Tate (who now have support from Turner Prize winner Susan Phillips) but also the University College London Union – widely seen as the place to watch by activities on mobilisation and occupation – has voted overwhelmingly in favour of the occupation. Final results of which were: 252 in support; 59 against; 16 abstain.

It would be in bad taste to suggest that those 16 abstaining may be Lib Dems, so I’ll avoid that for now.

Update: The art students have now left the Tate, but not without a song! Plus, sign the Birkbeck petition.

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