Saturday, May 31, 2008

Boris who? (2008)

From the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Does the election of a Tory mayor of London mean the end of civilisation as we know it?

I came back from attending the London elections count on the 2nd of May, to find the following letter on my welcome mat, from a Labour Party member of my acquaintance.
Dear Pik, 
As I write, Tories overhead are taking over my city. Otherwise civilised people, with a knowledge of Beethoven and Shakespeare, are trying to enact Tory policies. I am currently cowering in my cellar, with my Grandad’s old steel helmet on my head, and a phrase book of how to speak Tory. I have stockpiled on bully beef and powdered egg, and with my knife tied to a broomstick I am prepared to last out the rule of Boris Karloff – or whatever his name is. 
I remember our conversations, in those now far-off days of Labour rule, in which the sun always seemed to shine. You said, if I recall, that Boris is just a saloon bar bore – heartland Tory who believes in small government and just letting the rich get on with running their lives. Just look, you said, at his housing policy, he wants to end the requirement to have 50 percent affordable housing (and no, I still don’t know what “affordable” actually means in practice, nor for whom they are supposed to be affordable) on all new building projects. Instead he promised to “work with the boroughs” in order to build the same 55,000 such new homes. In other words, he was going to allow Tory boroughs to refuse to allow low cost housing in their halcyon areas that might attract the likes who might vote Labour. Likewise his promise to promote building that won’t spoil existing views – protect the rich and drive the poor into already ugly ghettoes. 
I know I’ve spent the last few years talking up Labour’s increase in policing, and how that has cut crime. You said that crime always falls while the economy grows, and showed me graphs and stuff to prove it (do you always carry those round in your pocket?); but Boris wants to cut the cost of policing, while at the same time putting more police on the tubes and buses. He wants to cut and cut taxes, and the expensive part of the mayoral budget is the police part. I know you said “how can Boris be tough on crime if there isn’t plenty of crime to be tough on”, and I agree that the Tories do try to have it both ways, but I was shocked when you said “look, the root cause of crime is free enterprise – so long as there are profits to be made, and entrepreneurs ready to enter the crime market, there will be blood.” How can you say such things when, under Labour, free enterprise has brought us such prosperity? 
I know Ken Livingstone almost said as much, blaming the rise of teenage violent crime on his success in smashing the drugs networks (apparently, he reckons, with their foot soldiers in prison, the drugs barons just started recruiting a new generation). But, really, how could you possibly equate the likes of Shell or BAE with a bunch of violent hoodlums using violence to make money? 
So what that Karloff will surround himself with are advisers he can delegate to – just like the way he ran the right-wing rag The Spectator. So, you reckon, that means that they’ll ensure that he stays within the law, and doesn’t do anything so disastrous that the profit of the people who own London will be threatened. Most of what will change will be the mood music from city hall – even if it will be the harsh sounds of the right-wing dog whistle. 
You’ll miss Ken now he’s gone. He fought for a living wage in London £7.20 an hour, the European decency threshold. He won awards for equal opportunities – the most gay friendly workplace in the country and using the London Development agency to promote Black and Minority Ethnicity businesses. OK, a lot of that was compliance with national law, so Boris will hardly be unable to undo it all, but he will say mean things, and upset a lot of people – you just watch. 
I mean, you said, “Livingstone hasn’t got rid of poverty, and can’t – he’s consciously working within the capitalist system. Look at his arguments over the Public Private Partnership – he wasn’t against capitalist finance, he just thought the state should borrow on the open market, and pay profits in the form of interest on that debt.” 
And you said “he didn’t use his position to call for radical change, instead he used machiavellian tactics to hold on to power while working behind the scenes to secure his basis of support That’s why he lost, he just strung workers along with a few paltry promises – and when a better snake oil salesman came along, they buggered off and voted for him instead. Selling promises isn’t democracy, it’s the politics of the market place, and Ken was just out-entreprenuered by Karloff.” 
So, you reckon Ken lost because the workers preferred what the Tories had on offer and wanted that. I don’t believe it, I think their minds were warped by the Evening Standard using mind rays or something. How could they possibly want to vote for someone who will allow them to drive gas guzzling cars, opposes a 24 hour freedom pass for pensioners and who will doubtless cut back on free bus travel for school kids? 
Next you’ll be telling me that the fact that the BNP won a seat isn’t a cause for concern. I know what you’ll say, that they just got one of the seats that went to UKIP at the last election (the Tories got the other), and so that just means that the anti-immigration rightwing majority on the GLA will be maintained (yes, I know the fact that under PR the right predominated previously shows that there is mass support for such views in London, and that Karloff’s victory is just a reflection of this). 
Of course, the three seats for the Liberals make them decisive, but given that they’ve tacked onto the cost cutting message of the Tories, and ran on a platform of tax cuts they’ll back the Tories on crucial votes to try and woo the latter’s supporters. At least you and I agree on this, that the Lib-Dems are yellow Tories, people who just can’t admit to themselves that they are Tories. 
But the BNP are fascists – I know, they’re mostly ageing suburban cockney’s who are deeply confused. What was that you were telling me about the BNPer you overheard talking about why he believed his “mixed race” grandson that he was raising should be allowed into the BNP (despite understanding the need to “protect the species”)? I know “its irrational” and that they’re clinging to this sense of identity. Of course, the Tory party has long contained such people, and if the workers come to believe such nonsense there’s nothing we could do to stop them. 
Except, you were there when we both heard Frank Dobson MP suggesting we should just change the electoral rules to keep the BNP out. That seems fair to me – these people are opposed to democracy anyway, so we need to take away their votes in order to save voting. After all, if we can point to the BNP we can persuade people to vote for us to keep them out. I know you keep saying that unless we give people something to be for, and actively try to change their minds, then the BNP is what you get. I know that Brown shamelessly pandered to their prejudices with the slogan “British jobs for British workers” that the BNP then prominently displayed on their election material. But trying to change people’s minds is a way to lose elections, unless we tell them what they want to hear, we’ll never get to get into government and enact our programme.
So, the “socialism” you talk about sounds lovely. It’s a great idea, but no-one will ever go for it. In the meanwhile we’ve got to try and run capitalism as it exists. We don’t have time for changing minds, for education, for the hard slog of building up a clear line of advance, we just need to adjust how we sell our product better. Brown will try and make out that he has gifts to give the electors in return for their votes, and if we overcome this mid-term blip, then, at least, we might hang on, or at least deny the Tories a majority.
Anyway, I must go now, I think I heard Tories trying to sniff me out. I’ll come out of my bunker when its safe, until then, here’s a record of me chanting “Boris, Boris, Boris, out, out, out.” Hey, back to the good old days under the Tories, stormy meetings, out on the streets. We can do it all again!
L. P. Hack.
Pik Smeet

Post-Modernist Monsters (2000)

Book Review from the January 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Crass Art and Other Pre Post-Modernist Monsters. By Gee Vaucher. (AK Press, Existencil Press, 1999). 104 pp.)

Gee Vaucher is the artist who worked with the inspirational anarchist music group Crass, producing the striking artwork that accompanied their sonic wake-up call. She also produced plenty of cracking stuff before and after Crass, and produced and illustrated an irregular publication called International Anthem.

As commented on in the foreword to this collection (referring to the title), Gee Vaucher is a pre- (or non-) "post-modernist" artist in that she visibly strives to present a beauty and a meaning in human existence. And, as with the searingly political musical assault of CRASS, her work also seeks to expose the horror of the global system we live under, and show that there is an alternative. Shoulder shrugging is not an option.

"She pulls us apart and puts us together in such a way as to shake us up and wake us up." This is a pretty good description of how Gee Vaucher's artwork works, and works so effectively. Her most overtly social-political stuff uses the method of creating collages—i.e. rearrangements of images from a wide variety of sources (usually from the mass media and advertising) to produce new and confrontational compositions. Anyone with a few Crass records at home will be familiar with this technique. Maybe it's so effective because it takes the images we are bombarded with every day of our lives (politicians, religious symbols, war, consumption), rips them up and makes them into something unfamiliar that is also a comment on the reality we can all recognise. In the words of Pablo Picasso (quoted by Gee Vaucher): "At its best, art is a lie that helps us realise the truth, at its worst, it is a confirmation of the lies that we inherit".

She also uses her great abilities to produce hyper-realistic paintings of her collages, and also combines the two. These works also have the effect of forcefully questioning life in the hideous circus of world capitalism. Her more personal work, often abstract, while less explicitly "political", is also very interesting in its exploration of human experience.

In short, this is surely what good art is all about. In the words of Crass: "Mickey Mouse fuck off".
Ben Malcolm

Misery for the 'Middle Class'

From the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back.

Under the headline ‘Epidemic of debt spreads to Britain’s middle class’, Jill Insley, writing in the Observer (18 May), notes that a decade of cheap credit is now causing problems for once relatively well-off people; and that debt advice agencies are being swamped by demands for help from a new type of customer--‘the cash-strapped middle income family’. Like many other commentators, she refers to such people as belong to the ‘middle class’.

As the cost of credit rises, and fixed-rate mortgages end, ‘middle class’ borrowers are turning to such charities as Community Money Advice and, where they exist, the Citizens Advice Bureaux. In such towns and cities as Cambridge, Horsham and Tunbridge Wells, where there is no Citizens Advice Bureau, Community Money Advice report that they are ‘seeing a new type of client’: teachers, police and ‘service sector workers’, many of them struggling with mortgages, secured loans and credit card debts. Most were already financially stretched, but have been ‘pushed over the edge by dearer credit, and big increases in food and utility costs’.

Insley cites a television producer with an annual income of £70,000, an IT support consultant with an annual income of £28,500, and a retired bank manager now with an income of £40,000, of whom all have debits of between £25,000 and £110,000. Another couple, who between them earn £48,500 a year, have a mortgage, six credit cards, two secured loans and debts of almost £200,000.

Most of these people, and many millions more, generally imagine that they belong, not to the working class, but to some mythical middle class, often because many of them have salaries in excess of the average. Such ideas are of course also peddled by the media, on the radio, TV and in the newspapers. It is only when capitalism’s ‘good times’ give way to the inevitable downturns that the so-called middle class are forced to realise, often in debt and also sometimes unemployed, that in reality they have but little or no ownership in the means of life, or even their ‘own’ home. To use an old socialist phrase, they are propertyless proletarians; wage and salary slaves, just like bus drivers, refuse collectors or shop assistants.

Hopefully, more of them will realise this and seek a solution to their poverty, and never-ending struggle to make ends meet; of ending the present production-for-profit, capitalist society and organising for a world of common ownership of the means of life. Middle class, they ain't!

Peter E. Newell