Netroots UK – A report

Yesterday I attended the Netroots UK event hosted by False Economy, Liberal Conspiracy, TUC, Netroots Nation and many more. The nature of the event, and the standard of the speakers, proved it would be an enjoyable day, but this in itself did not determine how effective it would be for the next steps in activism, and how faithful it would be to the promise that this was not an event “to have long-winded discussions, but create useful spaces where people can discuss strategy drawing on their experience of local campaigns: what works and what doesn’t.”

Even before the event took place some sceptical voices made themselves heard (such as my from my friend HarpyMarx – see in particular the debate on the comments thread) arguing that the grouping of “soft lefts” and dinosaur union bureaucrats would do little to influence the kind of engagement that you can find in the community “fighting against closures of libraries, council services, playgroups, care facilities, attacks on benefits, jobs…and so on”.

Also on the sceptical side, Jacob at The Third Estate blog noted yesterday that while he doesn’t claim “social media is not useful, [or claim] that it hasn’t given a voice to people who previously were unconnected to activist movements, [he does] think we need a level of suspicion about claims that technology can be the political basis for new movements.”

Taking those thoughts on board, it has been my contention that an event like this should take place so as to crowd source from a room of activists – whether they are online or offline – what kind of movement can be built against the cuts and the government (a good judge of this is whether party or parliamentary politics has a place in the fight, or whether leaderless organisations can build themselves up from the bottom up) and what the longer term goals are that can be agreed on, not just by a panel of experts, but by people are who engaged in it.

It’s no small task to agree on such things – if you can ever, truly, agree on such things at all – and so while criticising the day for not building the immediate capabilities of a government takeover is wide of the mark, what it did succeed in doing however was sharing practical lessons on where next for activists, armed with social technologies, as well as focusing on some of the lessons already learnt in our recent history (MyDavidCameron for example, the UCL occupation, anti-cuts movements in local communities).

For me one of the most useful elements of the day had been a brief “fringe event”, which took place to a handful of people while they were eating lunch, about Swedish lessons on blogging. While many “Westminster village” bloggers like to boast about their traffic, the important lesson is getting the right people to hear your practical opposition/propositions. Johan Ulvenlöv, one Swedish blogger who addressed us, told us that fewer MPs in Sweden have blogs than in the UK (though some those MP blogs are more like cheap noticeboards) though many more Swedish MPs read and engage with them. Part of Ulvenlöv‘s job (he works for the social democrats in Sweden – who he said were less hated in his country than the Labour Party are at this conference) is to act as a point of call between bloggers and politicians – a profession almost incomparable in this country.

During a breakout session on blogging and the left in 2011, the editor of Conservative Home Tim Montgomerie – a surprise guest – made note of the fact that he never gets invited to similar events on the right. The planning potential of the left certainly surpasses that of the right, but to say Netroots UK was free from navel-gazing would be an impudent lie. Polly Toynbee (who got it in the neck a few times yesterday) dines out every week not because of community-based planning, or for formulating next stages for mass movements utilising social media tools, but owing to her frequent polemics against the government (and sometimes for the benefits of outsourcing public sector contracts and Serco). What she has to offer is a reassertion of why we were there in the first place (something which we were promised would not happen) – and it was neither helpful nor useful, nor universally appreciated (see the following tweets here; here; here; here; here; here; here).

The silver-lining came from the Q&A session after Polly had been ushered off the podium – while audience members were asking questions of the panel, Sunny Hundal intervened and asked audience members to raise their hands if they had any answers to audience questions. Some people around me overtly sniffed at such a proposition, but this intervention had it halfway right. Next time speaker invitations should be withdrawn from the Toynbees and the usual mess of thinkies, and the platform given to participants, who are then invited to answer queries from the floor – not out of any frustration with hierarchies, but because real best practice on this subject is likely to come from people who do not always appear in newspapers or academic anthologies, but who’ve taken to the streets in anger at the coalition government’s ideological cuts agenda and have seen first hand what works and what does not, what groups people together and what puts people off.

In short, the event was at its best when it invited best practice and expert opinion from the floor – and it’s important to remember that this was a strategy event; this is not the strategy in action, so if the government doesn’t collapse under the weight of Netroots don’t be disappointed.

(For more links to videos and information on Netroots than you could imagine, see Next Left)


Top Ten posts last year

Inspired by Cath, who in turn was inspired by Adam, who  in turn was inspired by Darryl, I will list here the top 10 posts that have been read on this blog, last year:

1. Tom Harris, the sacked Christian teacher, violence and bullying

This was posted in December 2009 and is about Tom Harris’ appeal to left wing bloggers to stick up for a Christian teacher who was being sacked, and as Harris explained persecuted for his beliefs.

As it was Christmas I posted a picture of a snowman – it would appear, sadly for me, that it was this that made it my most popular entry for 2010.

2. Heiko Khoo expelled from the International Marxist Tendency

I was witness to some far left gossip as it was happening, within moments of finding out that Heiko Khoo had been expelled from the International Marxist Tendency I was typed up the affair and it became quite popular – it’s also one of the first things to appear on google if you type Khoo’s name, fairly well known for his public speaking.

3. Iranian law and the case of Sakine Mohammadi Ashtani

In this entry I disseminate why the case – still ongoing – of Ashtiani is both wrong generally, but also wrong according to Islamic law specifically.

4. The deportations of unaccompanied asylum seeking children

I had been doing some research on UASC when news emerged that the UK Border Agency was setting up a £4m “reintegration centre” as part of the process of deporting children back to Afghanistan. This chimed in with a debate I had had with Neil Robertson on LibCon about child detention centres, which I anticipated before talk of the reintegration centre would be better than some of the alternatives – I felt vindicated, if saddened, at the time of finding out the governments plans for UASC.

5. Raoul Moat is caught

I was watching the live news as this story was breaking out, so I decided to write a quick post when Moat was caught – some time after it was revealed, however, that he had shot himself and died.

6. Special educational needs and the Daily Mail

I’d written this post addressing a suspiciously written piece in the Daily Mail referring negatively to children who have SEN. What I didn’t realise at the time was that an academic who the Mail quoted would read my piece and leave a comment saying that the Mail had taken something she had said out of context to back up their rancid views. I then wrote a piece about that called The Daily Mail: Even Worse than Flat Earth

7. A Freudian, anti-Cartesian, look at Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’

After watching the film Shutter Island I was reminded of some Freudian notions, which I jotted down. I fear that this is in the top 10, not because of my Freudian analysis, but because of the film’s popularity.

8. Christopher Hitchens and prayer

Right after Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer a large contingent of idiots came out to say they hope now he will repent and look towards prayer as a way to safety. This drove me crazy, so I jotted a little note down here.

9. Daily Mail confused by reality/fiction again

This did the rounds on twitter after being retweeted by a few people; it refers to a byline on the Mail website which makes it appear the writer did not realise the Eastenders plot was fictional: “Young Mother had tried to throw herself from roof before making escape”.

10. Wazhma Frogh and women’s rights in Afghanistan

There had been a surge in debate on women’s rights and certain justifications for war in the Middle East. I used this opportunity to look at the work of Wazhma Frogh, an interesting academic and campaigner, who refers to herself as both feminist and pro-war in Afghanistan.

“Tuition fee rise could boost our college” – quite beyond the point

Being on the other side of the wagon, I tend not to think the pro-cuts, pro-student-fee-increase lot have a leg to stand on with their sums, but of course there are to every argument good and bad.

The following example, from tonight’s Basildon Echo, represents the bad, nay, utter nutbag daft corner. The article is titled ‘Tuition fee rise could boost our college’ and is an interview with the principal of my old college which I left 6 years ago. I’ll fisk as appropriate.

On the subject of “riots in central London, MPs quitting frontbench positions and an attack on the royal car”:

These incidents … dominated the news agenda towards the end of last year and attracted a lot of criticism.

I ought to point out for reference, this particular paper, with its award-wnning estate agent turned journalist Jon Austin, spends most of its time waxing hysterical about the local travellers. It didn’t cause too much fuss about the election of the Tory MP Stephen Metcalfe, who when I emailed to ask him, in vain, to vote against tuition fee rises, replied – in short – no! In short, the paper will probably make no bones about stating all the criticism without the amount of PRAISE the students received.

Jan Hodges, college principal and cheif executive, said higher university tuition fees mean more people may choose to study locally.

Surely the only logic here is that people will not be able to afford to move out, which while this may be a good guess, is pulled straight out of the wind. Also, it’s rather perverse; the notion that your poverty could keep you in Southend will not be pleasing anybody.

In her, slight, defense, Hodges is quoted as saying:

The increase is not a good thing, but it might be something we capitalise on.

Do we suspect Ms Hodges isn’t taking this, backdoor creeping financial exclusivity seriously? She goes on:

It might be the case the tuition fees increase means people look to study locally instead of at university – the local education offer is a strong one.

Is that really the two alternatives? Does this even make sense? At this stage I wonder whether Hodges actually said this, or whether the journalist was making shit up. To draw a serious comment from this, is it good to keep local people taking up local education? From her perspective shouldn’t it be about retaining numbers? Instead of making inglorious attempts to address how the fee rises could help benefit college – which really is contestable – would it not be better to address how bad the fee rises are generally? As old wisdom will tell you, if you have nothing sensible to say keep your trap shut – so what if the local education offer is a strong one if, in her words, “the increase is not  a good thing”.

blog recommendation…

Clouded Outlook – very in depth, and always succinctly analysis on UK banking and finance

Internal bickering versus “whistling in the dark”

Hopi Sen, in his intellectually impure and prosaic manner, said on twitter last night:

Oh-ho, has the new left thingummy reached stage three of all left wing movements then (tedious internal bickering?) / Campaign model for all leftie “revolutionary “groups – Stage 1: Campaign. Stage 2: overblown rhetoric about transforming world. / Stage 3: Internal bickering. Stage 4: Assign blame for failure to achieve stage 2. Stage 5. Appear on Newsnight to criticise Labour party.

Droll, I’m sure. But what has been characterised here as ‘internal bickering’ is a vital component of assessing next stages of any successful movement of people.

Questions on whether applying theory to practice is necessary anymore have emerged (see NLP here, SWP) as well as questions on whether leadership is necessary in such an organised gathering of protesters (see Seymour; Seymour; and Seymour’s apology) – particularly concerning UK Uncut (a better summary of events can be found at The Great Unrest blog).

The argument against discussing theory – characterised by some as meaningless intellectual masturbation – and against leadership – characterised by some as the adoption of old, stale bureaucratic structures – is made while drawing on the current success of the movement (see Laurie Penny and Marcus Malarky on this, then see Owen Jones on the problems of leaderless youth). But to pretend these structures are unnecessary, and that the movement is unique and distinct from other movements, is a grave error, and one which has been host to so many casualties. Take for example the struggle of German labor movements from 1912 to 1923. Paul Mattick had this to say about them in 1947, and it sounds very familiar to the place where the student movement is at now:

In retrospect, the struggle of the German proletariat from 1912 to 1923 appeared as minor frictions that accompanied the capitalistic re-organization process which followed the war-crisis. But there has always been a tendency to consider the by-products of violent changes in the capitalistic structure as expressions of the revolutionary will of the proletariat. The radical optimists, however, were merely whistling in the dark. The darkness was real, to be sure, and the noise was encouraging, yet at this late hour there is no need to take it seriously. As exciting as it is to recall the days of proletarian actions in Germany – the mass meetings, demonstrations, strikes, street fights, the heated discussions, the hopes, fears, and disappointments, the bitterness of defeat and the pain of prison and death – yet no lessons but negative ones can now be drawn from all these undertakings. All the energy and all the enthusiasm were not enough to bring about a social change or to alter the contemporary mind. The lesson learned was how not to proceed. How to realize the revolutionary needs of the proletariat was not discovered.

Mattick recalls the excitement of the actions; I fear the excitement of the actions taking place during current demonstrations and direct actions today make it difficult to see the necessity of assessing next steps, theory and leadership. But so as to ensure nobody today is “whistling in the dark” internal dialogue must remain – even if Hopi Sen and the other New Labour Dinosaurs laugh about it.

On the Multiculturalism/Zizek debate

I put off writing this because I had already got the subject out of my system, but it has returned and it’s very difficult to ignore: it is the question of multiculturalism, and more specifically what this means to anti-fascists.

Richard Seymour recently produced a blog entry about philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s attempts to critically analyse violence and provocation carried out against the Strojan family – an extended family of 31 Gypsies, 14 of them children.

Seymour’s beef is with two things: firstly the outcome of the events, which culminated in the police succumbing to pressure by violent mobs and forcing the family to leave, who, as he notes, had they not “driven the gypsies out, the racist mob would have done so with fire and blades.”

The second thing Seymour has beef about is Zizek’s poor research on the matter. Zizek has used this example to underline his own controversial view of multiculturalism (more of which in a moment) but what he has failed to do is properly understand what happened to the family. As Seymour says in a reply to critics of the aforementioned entry:

I find no evidence that the Strojan family are car thieves, and they didn’t murder anyone. It is true that locals blamed the Strojan family for a number of thefts, but it’s also true that they acknowledge when pressed that the Strojans have been scapegoated on this issue.

I’m with Seymour here; had Zizek done his homework, he would’ve seen that this is a case of scapegoating, or at best a heavy-handed response to petite-theft among some individuals of a family, perhaps spurred on because of the family’s racial background. Zizek here is not being racist, he has just erroneously placed this disgraceful event in the wrong context; by implication I feel that Zizek’s “apologia for anti-Roma racism” is due to a misjudgement by the Slovenian.


As it happens I find Zizek’s critique of multiculturalism very useful (which is why one can agree with Seymour on this issue, and still be in defence of Slavoj Zizek, so to speak). I will attempt to place it in its correct context.

Multiculturalism, according to Kenan Malik, author of From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, has come to be defined as a policy promoting diversity among a society of people with fixed identities, partly as a reaction to inharmonious feeling at a time of increased immigration into the UK. For Malik this has simultaneously become the problem and solution to intolerance. While it rather nobly aims to celebrate difference, it also rather crudely pigeon-holes people, on account of their racial or national heritage.

In trying to effect “respect for pluralism [and] avowal of identity politics” – which have come to be “hallmarks of a progressive, anti-racist outlook” – segregation has simply become institutionalised.

As a consequence to the respect agenda, all cultures have become of equal value, which may mean that in purely multicultural terms everything is permissible if it can be justified on the grounds of cultural heritage – which leads to the question who can authoritatively account for what a cultural trait is (for Malik, such policies in the eighties served only to strengthen conservative Muslim leaders in Birmingham, on the daft assumption that they alone could authoritatively account for what Islam is).

For Zizek, there is a bourgeois liberal variant of multiculturalism that is repulsed by (far) right wing populism of the Other (the immigrant for example) to the extent that it starts to fetishise the Other. Not content with opposing all racism directed at this Other, it starts to think the Other can do no wrong. Take as an example the song “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer” often sung by Julius Malema, President of the African National Congress Youth League; the real anti-racist would oppose this song in spite of its historical context, for whatever the white farmers’ crimes during the apartheid, this is a song that is derogatory towards a race. The bourgeois liberal fetishist, of the ilk to which Zizek refers, may justify singing the song on the grounds that such retaliation is historically justified (you could perhaps ascribe to this the notion of “white guilt”).

For Zizek, the bourgeois liberal justifying Malema singing the song is akin to expressing the belief that Melama knows no better, leading Zizek to assert that certain modes of politically correct tolerance of the Other is grounded upon the belief that certain groups can be judged differently (which is why the BNP for example are wrong for being racist populists, but Malema is clear on the grounds that he has experienced racism himself). This ends up being monoculturalism based upon a rather stereotypical ideal of how the Other should act – the point being that the bourgeois liberal, for Zizek, is deluding himself by thinking he is a mutliculturalist, since it is almost a colonial understanding of the foreign Other who he is identifying.

In short, this notion of multiculturalism masks a racist idea of the Other who needs to be “tolerated” (for more on this see Naadir Jeewa’s excellent analysis).

The confusion here lies in who we identify as this bourgeois liberal, naïve apologist? For many people who subscribe to multiculturalism this simply doesn’t resonate. For me, Zizek’s analysis is less a critique of multiculturalism, and more a critique of naïve, neo-colonial monoculturalism (which I assume he is well aware of, though if not, we ought to understand that the bourgeois liberal variant of multiculturalism is not necessarily inherent to multiculturalism proper). But maybe the word multiculturalism lends itself too easily to the idea that cultural relativism is appropriate– since we’re immediately in a struggle to identify what we can call culture (authority on which, as Malik explains, can often fall into the wrong hands).

When most people support multiculturalism, what they mean is that a country ought not to have a dominant national character immigrants are obliged to adopt as a guarantee of their debt to their new homeland. Instead a country should allow all to practice what they wish, as they wish, provided that it doesn’t harm anyone. Perhaps I’ll adopt the term socialist universalism?