Friday, August 12, 2016

Poetry Work (1999)

Book Review from the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Work: An Anthology. Edited by Dinah Livingstone with the Common Words Group, Katabasis, 1999, pb. £12.95 

Call me a philistine if you wish, but I find much contemporary poetry boring. Poets, lacking anything significant to say about change, retreat into reflective abstractions and introspective indulgence. I am not hoping for all literature to be "politically meaningful", but neither should it be precious, remote from the world and proud in its inaccessibility. Poets should seek to be understood. 

Work is an anthology by poets who clearly want to be understood. As importantly, they clearly understand what it is they are writing about. This is not an observer's view of work but the testimony of people who have themselves had to work in order to live. The book breathes experience. It is a superb collection, comprising new works by writers who have a record of publication and reputation and others who were hitherto unpublished. 

The anthology begins with an extract from Morris's How We Live and How We Might Live which serves as a political foreword to the volume, rooting it explicitly in a political recognition of how employment turns the worker into "but an appendage to profit-grinding". Poems within the anthology return to this again and again, few more powerfully than Christopher Hampton's exposure of "the leash" of wage slavery; Sandra Smith's wonderful comparison between workers and birds; and Dilys Wood's moving evocation of a miner's life. There is much more: short, sharp pieces on odd jobs such as the chiropodist by Anna Robinson and Dinah Livingstone's brilliant "assistant birdman of Regent's Park". Mimi Khalvati writes beautifully on the work of being a poet. And these are just some. There are prose pieces, including direct reports from the Hillingdon hospital workers (Asian women who were on strike for four years for refusing to take a pay cut; their employer is a member of Blair's Low Pay Commission) and an account of a young worker killed by casualisation. Ernest Fischer, whose The Necessity of Art remains probably the finest Marxian analysis of the role of art, describes how poetry began in the rhythm of the work song, itself produced by the repeated movements of physical work. So it is appropriate that this fine anthology of poetry should return to the subject of work—to its frustrations, its creativity, its rhythms and its pitiful rewards. The next Katabasis anthology will be on the theme of Home. I'm looking forward to it already.
Steve Coleman

Home (2001)

Book Review from the January 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

HOME - An anthology. Edited by Kathleen McPhilery with the Common Words Group. Katabasis, 2000.

At its title suggest, this is a compilation of writings on the theme of "home", following on from a similar anthology, "Work" (reviewed in the Socialist Standard, March 1999).

The entries are classed as poems, essays, accounts and reports—the collection relies too heavily on poetry for my personal taste, but otherwise there is plenty to interest the politically aware reader.

The collection opens with a fascinating essay by Dinah Livingstone, entitled "Home on Earth", which poses many question about the nature of "home", not just in the physical sense of four walls (if you're lucky), but also in the broader sense of cultural or national environments. She regularly refers to the Zapatista slogan, "For a world where there is room for many worlds", and also brings in the power of language—"as well as in a particular place, we are also at home in our mother tongue". This thoughtful essay poses more questions than it answers, but certainly set me thinking about my relationship with the world.

Colin Davies, in "The Architecture of the Home", contrasts "modern" vs. "traditional" styles of home building, with the "modernists" getting a clear thumbs-down: Frankfurt flats "spaced and oriented for optimum daylight and sunshine" made "no concessions to existing physical context or to any architectural tradition". "Being perfect, the city is unalterable . . . It is a city without memory and without hope". Davies goes on to reflect that, "Like every other material aspect of modern life, housing has become a commodity."

Later, Dilys Wood offers a feminist perspective with her essay "Woman and Home". I must confess to finding it slightly turgid, meandering along as it does to the conclusion that, "We have just reached the point at which the identification between woman and home has been broken and women can look forward to the same status as men in the world of paid employment."

More about such depressing reformism later. These and other theoretical essays are interspersed with poems and much more personal accounts of "home" life in a variety of settings. Such settings vary from life on the street, to squats, child-care institutions, boarding schools, sheltered housing, nursing homes, even a Hare Krishna temple. These often poignant vignettes offer perhaps more sense of real humanity than the more abstract essays. The accounts of live in a nursing home offers a welcome note of cynicism and defiance whilst a Yugoslav refugee remarks: "I don't think there is any justice left. I think that everything that is important in the world is money, money, money."

Comments like this are scattered throughout the book. Ultimately, though, it is a slightly depressing read for socialists because the only solutions offered seem to be from the usual reformist cul-de-sac. The book's fourth category, "reports", consists of reports from organisations such as Shelter, the Catholic Housing Aid Society, etc, with an under-riding feeling that these are the "experts" to whom we should look for solutions. Maybe that is unfair, but despite much criticism of aspects of capitalism, nowhere is there any suggestion that abolishing the wages system might get to the root causes of society's problems.

Despite its faults, however, Home is a well-researched and at times fascinating book.
Shane Roberts

Small is small (2013)

Book Review from the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World. By Greg Sharzer. Zero books, 2011. 180 pages.

According to Sharzer there are two kinds of ‘localists’–those who openly favour small-scale capitalism (small businesses, ethical consumption, community gardening) and those who see small-scale alternative economic arrangements (cooperatives, LETS schemes, local currencies, credit unions) as a way of undermining capitalism and progressing towards a post-capitalist society. His argument is that ‘while small-scale alternatives can survive and occasionally flourish, they won’t build a new, equitable society. Their prospects are severely limited by the power of capital.’They may be ways for some people to survive under capitalism, but are no threat to it.

Pro-market localists share the assumption of mainstream economics that capitalism is a system geared to meeting paying consumer demand whereas in fact it is geared to making profits and accumulating them as more capital. Capitalist firms are driven by market forces to accumulate as, to stay in the race, they must continually invest in reducing their costs of production. Small firms are not exempt from this pressure. Neither are the cooperatives favoured by anti-market localists. Both kinds of localist are ‘faced with the impalatable conclusion that small alternatives won’t outcompete or destroy capitalism.’ Rather, ‘capital’s inherent drives to profit expose local alternatives to ruthless market discipline.’

Ethical consumption can’t be effective because most people can’t afford it. LETS schemes and local currencies are less convenient than ordinary money and only survive because (and as long as) some activists are prepared to put in the extra work to keep them going. Community gardening in towns has to compete with other, rent-bringing uses of the land. If national governments have been unable to delink their economies from the world market how can local communities be expected to?

Sharzer questions both the feasibility and the desirability of localist schemes to maximise local autarky:
‘Consumer goods, let alone mass public transit systems and high-speed internet, are impossible without a highly-developed capacity to source materials, process them into finished products and distribute them across large distances. For example, making solar panels involves advanced machinery and massive financing that would be impossible to muster locally. (…) Even localism’s direct democracy needs high-tech to reduce people’s workload and allow them time to participate.’
Sharzer, then, makes a powerful case as to ‘why small-scale alternatives won’t change the world.’ This, however, is confined to the opening chapters. After them it’s downhill all the way. A whole chapter is devoted to trying to show that localism is the ideology of the ‘petite (sic) bourgeois’ as if this was a separate class (and as if he wouldn’t fall into it himself). Localism could be described as ‘petty bourgeois’ but only in the economic sense of wanting to create an economy of independent artisans and small (‘petty’) enterprises. Rock bottom is reached when he praises Lenin ‘whose movement inspired millions to take up arms for socialism’, i.e., for state capitalism, his own unviable ‘alternative’.  This means that unfortunately his criticisms are not going to be taken so seriously by anti-market localists.
Adam Buick

How to Avoid the Backfire Effect and Change Minds (2016)

From the August 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Contrary to what we might think, when presented with facts that run counter to what we currently believe we have a tendency of hardening, not softening, our currently held beliefs. This tendency is called the backfire effect and was discovered by researchers investigating how memory and knowledge are updated after correcting information has been received. The backfire effect works in several ways. Firstly there is the familiarity effect, the more someone is familiar with a claim the more likely they are to accept it as true. So, just mentioning a false claim, even if the purpose is to debunk it, will have the effect of increasing its familiarity and so the likelihood of it later being remembered as true. With this in mind, it is best to just focus on the facts if possible. Secondly, there is the overkill effect, information that is easier to process is more likely to be accepted as true. If we provide too many counter-examples, we will overwhelm our audience making our argument less likely to be accepted than if we had focused on one or two key points. The final and most important of these is the worldview backfire effect, this happens when the information relates to one's self-identity or political outlook. In these cases confirmation, and disconfirmation, bias will be working at their strongest as the tendency is to reject things that do not cleanly fit with the narrative of our current belief system. We should therefore be most cautious and self-reflective when considering facts that challenge that which we hold most dearly.
So, with all this in mind are we better off abandoning rational argument altogether? Not at all, but we should use this knowledge to act in a way that will be most effective. Instead of trying to bludgeon people into submission with brute facts we should get them to think about their thinking and to consider how they have formed and structured their beliefs. A cue can be taken from the ancient Greek philosopher and social gadfly Socrates who made himself a perpetual thorn in the side of respectable Athenian society, not by pushing his own views, but by endlessly questioning the assumptions of others. It has been shown that we tend to overestimate the completeness of our own understanding. By getting people to explain how and why they think something in detail, we encourage them to look at all the complexities of the issue and make any gaps in their knowledge apparent. When this method has been tried experimentally it has been found to have the effect of softening the certainty that a view is held. Once a gap has been made in someone's mental model the time is right to introduce an alternative explanation, preferably one that explains all the observed features of the event. People tend to prefer a faulty explanation to no explanation at all.
Effective discussion is as much about social skills and awareness as it is about logic and reasoning. The philosopher Daniel Dennett suggested the following method for achieving a more productive exchange. First, restate your opponent's argument in as clear a form as possible. Then mention any points of agreement, especially non-commonly held ones. State anything new that you have learnt from the argument. Then, only after these first three steps, are you permitted to put forward a rebuttal. By showing that you have taken the time to properly understand your opponent's argument and by indicating what in it you find of value you will already be starting the discussion off on a fertile footing.
Knowing about the common mistakes that we all make enables us to think more clearly about our thinking and so have a greater hope of coming to conclusions that are closer to the truth. If we want to be critical thinkers we should self-identify with the process of critical thinking and not with particular conclusions, that way we can more easily change our opinions in the light of new evidence. We should be seeking to get our politics to fit the facts and not bending the facts to fit our politics. Our default mode of thinking is to retrospectively rationalise reasons to justify our pre-existing beliefs, and by realising this and applying it to our own thinking we are more free to follow the process of reasoning and follow the logic and evidence to wherever it may take us.