Thursday, August 19, 2021

Voice From The Back: Censorship (2000)

The Voice From The Back Column from the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard


One of capitalism’s inherent contradictions/conflicts is being sharpened to killing point by the rapid development of the Internet: that of freedom of information versus privacy. Our freedom as individuals to find out facts about commercial companies and government is counterbalanced by their freedom to find out (and share) facts about us. “An entire new technical architecture to facilitate e-commerce is being created . . . ready to be grafted on to the older, libertarian architecture of the net. And therein lies the danger . . . the values implicit in the architecture of this new layer will be radically different from those implicit in the old one. The key difference will be that the new layer will use the technical facilities of the old layer to eliminate anonymity and erode privacy . . . Within such an architecture, the practice of anonymous reading—one of the great bulwarks of intellectual freedom—could be rendered impossible, at least in relation to online documents.” Index on Censorship, March.


Hundreds of merchant seaman are attacked, and several killed, by pirates each year as hard-pressed shipping companies cut back on staff and security. The wave of modern piracy has grown threefold over the past decade, leaving Britain’s merchant seamen feeling let down by the Government and their employers . . . Seamen and maritime experts blame the economics of shipping . . . Cargoes such as oil, sugar or aluminium bars are easily unloaded and their origins disguised in Far Eastern ports, notably China. Financial losses are covered by insurers. Financial Mail on Sunday, 11 June.

Blood money 

When this Labour Government was returned to power an inexplicable euphoria seemed to grip the British media. Supporters of Labour were soon delighting in religious-type mantras: “Education, education, education,” “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” Perhaps the most unrealistic piece of garbage was the news that the British Foreign Office was overturning centuries of ruthless cynicism and adopting an “ethical foreign policy”. What is the reality behind this sham? “Officials from dozens of the world’s most repressive regimes have been invited by the Government to view and buy high-powered military equipment at Farnborough Air Show next month. Many will have a significant proportion of the expenses of their trips paid by taxpayers the UK defence Export Sales Organisation” (Observer, 11 June). So welcome Indonesia, Pakistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and any other repressive dictatorship—come and buy. Ignore the nonsense of “ethics”; that is only cant produced for the gullible. After all, the arms trade is worth £5 billion a year to British capitalism.

TV Times 

So it’s no surprise that new research from the University of Essex shows that in the last 30 years, the average person has gained only 20 minutes’ extra free time each day. That’s about a TV half-hour. So what are you going to send that extra leisure time watching? TV Times, 15-21 April.

The cold facts 

Capitalism is a cruel social system. Based as it is on the profit motive, we expect it to ignore social needs if they conflict with that of profit. All workers suffer from its madness, but the old and the infirm seem to be its worst victims: “Lord Whitty, Environment minister, said yesterday that an estimated 4.3 million households in England were living in cold, damp and health-hazardous conditions. Around 30,000 winter deaths, mainly among elderly or disabled people and children, are linked with ‘fuel poverty’.” Times, 10 June.

The dignity of labour? 

An article in the Times (7 June) reveals just how widespread the Big Brother role is today: “All the same, it is worth remembering that if you are working on a computer (and who isn’t these days?) then keeping tabs on what you are up to is an easy matter for an employer—and it doesn’t stop at monitoring Internet use or snooping at e-mail. Did you know that, in addition, seven out of ten employers routinely watch their staff through CCTV systems and/or covert surveillance systems? Even if you are not caught on camera pinching anything from the stationery cupboard, advanced in technology mean that your company can still monitor what you are up to. Computer programmes are available that will log your every key stroke—including the time, frequency and speed. That means your boss can glean a complete picture of your productivity, work rate and the amount of time you spend away from the keyboard.” And to think that George Orwell’s 1984 used to be looked upon as a work of science fantasy.

Analysing the subtext (2000)

Theatre Review from the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Country by Martin Crimp, Royal Court Theatre,
Fires Were Started directed by Humphrey Jennings and
Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. The Aldeburgh Festival.

Peter Hall argues in Exposed By The Mask that “without Beckett, the way would not have been clear for Pinter . . .” And it seemed to me whilst watching Martin Crimp’s The Country at the Royal Court, that without Harold Pinter there would have been no Martin Crimp.

We are in familiar country. It is a land rich in desire and despair. “Who is the comatosed woman Richard has found on the roadside? Why has he brought her into his house? Exactly who is telling the truth?” the dialogue is clipped and staccato, and filled with menacing silences. Clearly all is not as it seems, and we are challenged to see through and beneath the words. What is really going on? As with Pinter we are confronted by the neurotic and the psychotic. Alienation and malevolence abound. The one character who seems honest and straightforward is deceived, abused and finally disempowered. Welcome to the 21st century.

No doubt those who find such theatre valid and significant would argue that the drama of Crimp, like that of Pinter and Beckett, challenges “naturalism”, and in doing so “gives the stage back to our imagination”. But there is a difficulty. Pinter and Crimp whilst challenging “naturalism” nevertheless seem to suggest that their work is rooted, albeit metaphorically, in reality. And no doubt it is. the difficulty is that the reality of the world of Pinter and Crimp is robustly selective. It is populated by people who are consistently malevolent: where to show even a mite of concern for someone is to be seen as being weak, and to invite abuse. It is a world which is so unambiguously nasty, as to have little contact with everyday experience other than in some fevered nightmare.

The Country paints a picture of people and their behaviour which is light yeas away from the of Fires Were Started, the wonderful dramatised documentary made by Humphrey Jennings in 1941/42. The film records a day in the life of a National Fire Service unit involved in fighting the London Blitz. In it Jennings shows us a group of unique individuals—ordinary men and women—working together in a team “dedicated to public service, bravery and sacrifice”. It too is selective—necessarily so given that it was produced by the Crown Film Unit in the middle of the Second World War. It was made to boost morale, to offer role models, to aid the successful prosecution of the war. As such it makes no mention of desertion, the “black market”, the continuing disparities between the rich and the poor, etc. It’s selectivity makes it, knowingly and unashamedly, propaganda. But I wonder? Could we also see The Country in this way? Arguably it, too, could be seen as an exercise in persuasion, in deliberate distortion. And which class might benefit from the selectivities that are evident in the subtext? Isn’t a fraternal, co-operative, democratic and just society less likely if people can be persuaded that malevolence is the norm?

And selective responses abound in critical commentaries of Benjamin Britten’s great opera Peter Grimes. At Aldeburgh I noted the way in which Philip Reed’s introduction in the festival booklet and the commentary in the programme both maintain that Britten had a natural empathy with Peter Grimes, because like Grimes he was an outsider. And why was Britten an outsider? Because he was a homosexual. Oh, yes, he was also a pacifist, but the latter is added as a kind of afterthought. It is Britten’s homosexuality which is identified as the major determinant of his empathy with Grimes.

I’m not surprised that commentators want to see Britten in this light. It’s all very convenient. It allows people to see Peter Grimes and to tut tut about the way in which foolish people in the 1940s—when the opera was written—almost drove Britten to write about an outsider, because he was a homosexual. Now, of course we see homophobia as unacceptable. Now we are enlightened and imaginative, and we shake our heads both at the behaviour of the people who drove Grimes to commit suicide, and society’s attitude to Benjamin Britten. And we deceive ourselves.

Certainly people disapproved of Britten’s homosexuality, but they disapproved even more of his pacifism. This is what drove Britten to travel to the USA at the end of 1939, not his homosexuality. Britten was fleeing from the war and all that went with it. To pretend otherwise may be convenient, but it is also wrong. And most people probably still object to his pacifism. So we have commentators writing contemporary history so that it chimes with contemporary prejudices. As ever the subtext is fascinating.
Michael Gill

The Mother of the Nation (2000)

TV Review from the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Only those locked deep down in the dungeons of the remotest castles in the land could to be unaware that this month sees the one hundredth birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. As a prelude to the festivities planned, Channel Four showed a documentary on 10 July called The Real Queen Mother. The programme title alone was an interesting one as it rather implied that the old dear that has been occupying our television screens and the front pages of the tabloids for years is an impostor. Unfortunately, this was not the case and the commemorative tea-towel makers and mug purveyors can breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Whatever else could be said about it, it would be unfair to suggest that this programme was a hagiography of the Queen Mother, merely detailing her various charitable acts and her courageous long-term battle against errant trout bones. The programme clearly attempted to steer a course between portrait and exposé, and for the most part reasonably successfully. Some revealing snippets certainly emerged though by and large they were just that—snippets. Throughout there was a sense that the programme’s makers were soft-peddling on the more interesting lines of enquiry open to them lest they go too far in an exposé of someone who is, in some senses at least, an extremely private person.

The programme was effectively constructed and conducted on the type of terrain occupied by the Queen Mother herself. By way of example, her relationship with her husband was never mentioned in ordinary, everyday terms, or indeed as a relationship at all, it was always referred to as a “romance”, even though the programme’s makers were able to demonstrate that this “romance” was a lot more earthy and complicated than the fairy-tale myth the Queen Mother has propagated from day one. Similarly, though the programme was able to outline the vindictive and mean-spirited streak which has been a pronounced part of the Queen Mother’s character all her adult life, it was always referred to euphemistically. The Queen Mother can never be labelled “vindictive”, apparently, even by Channel Four—although that is what she is—so instead she was described as “determined” and “steely” in the manner of second rate job interviewees who insist on turning their “negatives” into “positives” at every available opportunity.

Bring on the Hun 
If the programme performed one important service it was in its enunciation of the Queen Mother’s deeply held convictions and prejudices to an audience who, by and large, may have been unaware of them. There was reference to her adoring support for those two most popular Prime Ministers of the twentieth century, Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher; to her ingrained racism and belief that dark-skinned colonials are unable to run their own affairs without the benevolent, guiding hand of the white man; to her conviction that immigration should have been halted years ago, and many other prejudices besides. She is, apparently, still unable to refer to German people without calling them “the Hun”.

The one other fascinating thing to come out of the programme was the prominent place the Queen Mother holds in the history of spin-doctoring (and this without having conducted a single press interview since 1923). It is difficult to see how any potential candidates for the BNP like the Queen Mum could ever hope to achieve her consistently high poll ratings. Peter Mandelson certainly has nothing on her, from her use of newsreel during the war when she posed amongst the rubble of Buck House’s back garden just like she’d emerged from a two-up-two-down in Stepney (when actually she spent every night during the Blitz out of London at Windsor Castle), to her invention of the royal walkabout replete with gloves for glad-handing and the ever-present patronising grimace. And like all good spin-doctors and manipulators throughout history she bears grudges, builds up jealousies and pursues vendettas like there is no tomorrow, from Mrs Wallis Simpson to Lady Diana Spencer.

The Queen Mother always seeks to temper her hauteur and obvious distance from the masses with a deliberate cultivation of the image that underneath all the pomp and ceremony she is “just one of us”. This myth was exploded by a couple of interviewees who had been close to her for years and who remarked on the fact that her extravagance and lavish lifestyle is greater than that of any other royal (and that in itself is saying something). It was a pity that this wasn’t brought out more than it was—it would no doubt have been very illuminating to see what it takes to keep Her Royal Highness pampered day in day out while the rest of us eke our time away eating MacCrap and chips.

It some respects then, Channel Four pulled its punches when compiling this documentary, which is a shame, because the more the truth about one of the ruling class’s biggest fairy-tales emerges, the easier it will be for the really useful people in society to cast aside their adoration for leaders and bamboozlers of all sorts wherever they may be found—whether in parliament, in palaces, or in the case of the Queen Mother for much of the time, running up the world’s biggest overdraft at the races.

Sometime ago a reader wrote in to the Guardian’s “Notes and Queries” column to ask who Riley was and what was so good about the life they lived. The only answer must surely be that Riley is a metaphor—a metaphor applicable like no other to the woman who was born Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at a disputed location in August 1900 and whose life as the world’s most successful parasite has been an unparalleled inspiration to the ruling class and their sycophants ever since.
Dave Perrin