A note of closure for readers of this blog

As it may be known by some readers of this blog I cross post most entries from here on to the Though Cowards Flinch blog (http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/author/raincoatoptimism/). The blogosphere (especially on the left) seems to be moving further and further into collaborative efforts rather than individuals trying to compete with the big shots – and I will take heed. Therefore I’ve decided I will reserve this particular blog space for pieces of work that may be unsuitable for TCF (such as walk write-ups or other non-political issues I choose to pen words on).

TCF will soon be undergoing some sort of design/operation change to catch up with the other collaborative left blogs (that really should be in our shadow, not us theirs! Fact!) and I will want to put all my blogospheric time and energy into promoting that rather than living the blogospheric life of a cross-poster – a lonesome existence I can tell you.

It does mean that raincoat optimism will almost cease to exist.

But for those of you who may be interested my political output will be at TCF – to repeat the address: (http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/author/raincoatoptimism/).

Cheers.

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)

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.

Bad writing meme

Phil at AVPS has inadvertently set the ground for a bad writing meme. Here’s something I found in my files, which I wrote in University. Makes for very embarrassing reading indeed – and it is called- prepare to cringe – “Be(ing) Your Self? Ignorance, Identity, and Father Ted”.
Have we not come to expect that beneath every surface is a foundation? Where there is skin there is bone; Crust and Core; body and inner self. The last example however is rather vague. Is the body unique in its being the human surface? Probably not for there are things like personality, emotion, instincts etc. These examples, unlike body, are not physical, but still, nonetheless, beg for the neologism surface. The other striking thing about the examples are that they are affected, by which I mean somewhat arbitrary. As if elements of our personality, our relation to emotional response, our innermost instincts, are swimming around in the world before striking us and sticking to us like PVA glue. Indeed, of the human, only his physical body is indivdualised, that is to say that its physical separateness is from other bodies – although having said this it is still part in the process of evolution.

The determinants that piece together the elements that we attach to the three examples – the metaphysical human elements – are not assigned to one man alone. Those floating elements arbitrarily stick to one man, to be sure not at the orders of some grand plan. What is more, one man’s reaction in the world can always be mirrored by anothers involving only the same referent in the world, the same emotional response and so on. Man’s (re)actions are not his own. Quite the contrary. Those elements we attach to the three examples are not individualised like the separate body is. One body one man, as it were. One emotion one hundred men, who knows? Man’s reaction to the outer world is not dictated by himself, but by the world itself.

In Will Self’s novel My Idea of Fun, Ian the protagonist ponders on his knowing the determinants that piece together the elements attached to personality, emotion, and instinct. Life for him is simply of choices – the active conquest of cognitive activity. ‘I can actually point to my determinants’, he boasts.

Three of the twentieth centuries greatest thinkers have each tried to – at least in the abstract – pinpoint the nature of these imposed metaphysical determinants. 1) For Marx, One’s class position determines their being. 2) For Darwin, one’s natural adaptibility (species unto natural environment, not man unto capitalist economic field) determines their existence. Literally that human’s are open to change in their immediate environment. 3) For Freud, man is the sum of his childhood. Having said this 3 may well be nullified in the event of 1 and 2 being overbearing or ‘overdetermining’ in the Freudian sense.

One lesson of Self’s novel is that ‘ignorance is bliss’ – ignorance of ones determinants in anything other than the abstract. Though, for the ignorant, in this strict context, one is just as ignorant to this bliss as to that which deems our blissful ignorance. Moreover, bliss in ignorance is never really bliss, unless comparitively, which is impossible because any insight into that which one is ignorant of – here ones determinants – negates the bliss. Bliss in this formal sense is the always already unknown emotion.

What is apparent here is that quite somewhere below the metaphysical elements there should be some flat, uninhibited foundation, as we have come to expect. These arbitrary elements of the material world that we recieve in order to personalise, feel, and do, surely go some way into distorting what lies beneath the surface. For a worm in the University of Utah very recently, the surface would be somewhere between Erik Jorgensen genetically manipulating its brain in order to determine its sexual preference, and its post weaning ego genesis.

Elisabeth Roudinesco has labelled them rival contemporaries but let us for sake of argument bracket Sartre and Lacan together. Imagine (if you can) there is a self (somewhere) that is entirely untarnished by the outside world. Furthermore, imagine, in Freud’s terms, a self not principled by pleasure, which, in harmony with the ego, is constituted with ones social environment as its most dominant referent. Rather, a self intent on satisfying its drive with death – to say jouissance; beyond the pleasure principle, in a position that is not hindered by norms and values.

Our being (pre-)conscious of this untouched consciousness within us is Prof. C. Strenger’s ‘impossible task.’ But, using Lacan’s terms, this conscious self would be the ‘real’ of the self. The inability to contact this ‘real’ of the self would constitute the self’s enclosure in the ‘symbolic.’ To remind ourselves, the real for Lacan is the completeness of the world that we are severed from on our introduction to language and all things attached with symbols, that determine the meaning which we ourselves attach to things.

Our entrance and position within the symbolic order regards our relationship with the phallus – the order of the Paternal law which symbolises the notion of being with its acronym. This law which is constitutive of the way we see (and are conscious) of ourselves is bound to, as Sartre’s existentialism would concur, position us into something ontologically skew-whiff. In this very sense a being without accordance to its foundations – bad faith. When one acts in bad faith, they do so in accordance with the symbolic order. Conversely, were one to accept the unlimited freedom of himself, no matter how illiberal his immediate environment, he would return to the real of his self, as Sartre’s example of the waiter in Being and Nothingness tells us.

In much the same fashion as Sartre’s waiter, Ardal O’ Hanlon’s character Dougal in Father Ted on being recommended to be himself around any women, goes on to display an overexaggerated version of his self:

NIAMH: You haven’t told me your name, Father.

DOUGAL: Mmmm … Be yourself … FATHER DOUGAL McGUIRE!

NIAMH: Oh, right …

The character Dougal’s bombastic introduction sets up his over-self as the comic focal point. A Lacanian reading of this would point out that the character is a priest, and whether consciously or not, carries on the Paternal law with his position – regardless of his particular subversions and comic scepticism. The important question remains – what is the real of the self? And moreover, what are the metaphysical qualities of the real of the self?

Let us analyse these following words: All is with cause – few with intention. It is a summery of the arbitrary sticking of floating determinants that piece together our metaphysical workings, the escape wheel, the gear train, and the pinion of our inner selves. The self is literally nothing but the
sum of its determinants – it is a blank slate metaphysically. This is the very real of the self – the un-self. As aforementioned, the body is separated from other bodies, the mind is constituive of the material world, of which is assigned to no one person. If, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out in his essay in the Companion to Genethics, anything genetically determined can be overcome, it is negated in favour of the view that the mind is – in its real state – nothing other than the format of its perceptions. Ignorance remains of the specific elements of what is most determining of ones determinants and, in order to pursue this impossible bliss, so it should remain.

What is power and who should have it?

I was recently invited to give a presentation on what power is, and who should have it. This a write up of my notes.

What is power?

Traditionally power would be seen as rather hierarchical, exclusive or elitist. The word has a binary dimension; to be powerful is not to be powerless.

But this is just one example of what power is. Today politicians, employers and academics talk about the benefits of empowerment.

Who do they think should be empowered? Frontline workers such as social workers or nurses should be more empowered, because when they are, production tends to be increased, they have a sense of ownership over their role, they tend to stay in the role for longer, ensuring consistency, while it promotes mental wellbeing.

On this, there are many crossovers between the political left and right today. The link between sense of purpose through ownership and empowerment can be seen as important from the right, in say the think-tank Respublica, to the centre and liberal left, from The Work Foundation to Compass.

On the question of whether empowerment is beneficial is almost a subject of political consensus.

Who else should feel empowered? Citizens need to feel empowered; at a local level citizens need to feel their voice is being heard on issues that directly relate to them. They need to feel consulted with on relatively minor things like on an installation of a new park bench, to something larger such as the planning permission of a block of flats.

The same goes for citizens at a national level; voices need to be heard via referendum, be that for membership to the European Union through to the voting system. This is a radical cultural change; no decision should be too small at a local level, nor too big at a national one.

Though on the question of power, is it something to be bestowed upon the people from the top, or is it something that can be created by the people themselves? Is empowerment top down or bottom up? The freedom of information act is a good example of where government has acted and allowed citizens to gain access to information we once had no right to. Is that empowerment? In a way this knowledge is empowering, but it’s nothing if we just leave it there. Empowerment comes from what we do with that information, and how we use it to instigate change.

What is citizen empowerment?

So if this is what empowerment is in general, what is citizen empowerment specifically? It’s about having input into decision making. In 2006, when David Miliband was Minister for Local Government, he talked about the “double devolution of power” from Whitehall to the town hall, from the town hall to the neighbourhood. Today more than ever, we have the ability to take that a stage further – the triple devolution of power – from Whitehall, to the town hall, then to the neighbourhood to our online communities. Already the internet has created a space for citizens to be more powerful.

The reason for this is that the internet can harness unique forms of social contact; it’s now the task of people, politicians and organisations to promote this social contact as a way to influence change at both local and national levels.

In a Demos report published in 2006 entitled “Talk us into it: putting conversation at the heart of public realm,” Samuel Jones discusses two interesting statistics; the first being the English average for how many people an individual knows in their street which is 14, whereas for Scotland that figure is 31. The second is the English average for how many people can name a local councillor which is 42, whereas for Scotland that figure is 59. The conclusion Jones has come to is there seems to be parity between knowing people in the local area and knowing who to influence in order to bring about change to that area.

The other conclusion is that the national average is quite low and could be higher, and if it were communities could be more empowered.

For this purpose, is the information highway empowering? Henry Jenkins in his book Convergence Culture, notes that the technological age could produce the “monitorial citizen” by which is meant one who becomes, not enlightened through mass information, but bombarded by conflicted versions of the truth. I take a different view; mass information seems to be far more deliberative in that it encourages people to discuss and work out solutions with a whole range of information. Jenkins’ citizen sounds rather robotic believing everything she or he reads; the reality is information promotes nuanced opinion.

Can social media be empowering? I think it already is – in a way which cannot be ignored. An example of this happened to me last Thursday. I was walking from work to go to Holborn, in Central London. I just happened to look at my twitter feed only to find a few messages explaining how there had been a bomb scare and that the police were evacuating the area. I wanted to know more so I looked at the BBC website where I found nothing. I checked the Guardian website where I found nothing. Typed “Holborn” into google news to find absolutely nothing. I switched back to twitter where now many people had started to retweet more information on Holborn, this time with pictures taken from mobile phones, being tweeted and re-tweeted to their followers and their followers’ followers.

Already citizen empowerment is undercutting the traditional ways in which we receive information.

Who should have power?

In short, the answer is anybody who is affected by the decisions, services and provisions in their local area. Advocates of citizen empowerment, such as Simon Burall and Jonathan Carr-West in a 2009 report for Involve and the Local Government Information Unit, cite evidence for it’s benefits as local knowledge improving local services. It also builds links between the community and the provider, thus increasing accountability – a particular political hot potato, rendered so not least by the recent expenses scandal.

In his paper entitled Democracy Pays: How democratic engagement can cut the cost of government, Anthony Zacharzewski makes the financial case that democratic engagement of citizens can improve transparency and the accountability of where tax money goes. This would inevitably counter waste and reduce the cost local councils spend on consultancy, instead opening up decision making to the neighbourhood.

Another popular reason given is that citizen empowerment would re-enfranchise the disillusioned (such as NEET – not in education, employment or training – young people). If those on the cusp of society felt their voice heard, and they participated to the betterment of their society in a considered and meaningful way, this would hopefully return otherwise alienated people back to the communities in which they belong.

The one overarching reason that people should have power in their local communities is because it is a widely accepted, and fundamentally necessary, principle of democracy. People should not only be able to participate in making decisions related to the things around them; they should be able to frame the very terms of those debates.

To this end, and in the spirit of the times, there should be a single online access point, where people, with their local councillors and MPs, can enjoy such power.

Thank you.

Who is Marr calling bald?

Ok Mr Marr, you’ve rubbed us bloggers up the wrong way by calling us single, and living with our Mums. Fair’s fair. But bald?

Here’s what he said:

A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting. They are very angry people.

I’m a qualified blogger now, running this site, and having contributed to others such as Though Cowards Flinch, Liberal Conspiracy, The Third Estate, Open Democracy, The Disraeli Room – and I want to demonstrate how un-bald I am:

This, Mr Marr, is not bald – this is hair. Rather, this is bald:

And of course:

Ah, hang on; point taken.

Nadine Dorries and the vomit tweets

While we’re on the subject, is Nadine Dorries having a go at twitter? Who here remembers these gems from last year, authored by, yes, Nasty Nadine

Great, the vomiting train, again 10:59 PM Oct 13th from TwitterBerry

On train from Parliament to Bedford. Bloke opposite me vomiting. Everyone on train wasted. Love my journey home.10:48 PM Oct 12th from TwitterBerry

Only ever when she’s on it – strange…