Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (62)

Tackling class-based discrimination in British culture
Tuesday, 17 September 2019 21:17

Tackling class-based discrimination in British culture

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Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne argue that an incoming Labour government should make class discrimination a ‘protected characteristic’ in law

At the 2019 TUC Congress Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Labour minister Laura Pidcock both spoke about establishing a new workers’ protection agency enforcing individual and collective employment rights. At the same conference, TUC head Frances O’Grady called for outlawing discrimination against working-class people at work, for example in the form of pay gaps and unpaid internships.

This is a welcome move. The gentrification of the Labour party under Tony Blair witnessed an increase in middle-class people voting for and joining Labour, and a reduction in the influence of the working class. With its talk of social exclusion, the Blair government removed the language of discrimination. We need to once again talk about the ways in which the working class are discriminated against, and the impact that has in all areas of their lives.

But for this to work in any meaningful way we need to couch this discussion within the framework of class struggle and not simply employment practices. Not all working-class people are in work and the denigration, policing and depoliticization of working-class people takes place across multiple sites – education, the media, health, housing, popular culture and politics. We need to recognize class as heterogeneous and multifaceted, but at the same time not lose sight of the homogeneity of oppression and exploitation that constitutes the material reality of working-class life

The pronouncements by the Labour Party and the TUC offer some hope in a political context where class has become peripheral, and where the possession of material wealth and various social and cultural advantages are rarely considered to be part of the conversation.

Routine class-based discrimination in the professions

It is not widely known that in the last days of the last Labour government, the 2010 Equality Act was passed with a section which required public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to the desirability of exercising their functions in a way which reduces the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage.

Unsurprisingly, the incoming Conservative government declined to bring this section into effect. Had it done so, it could have been a lever with which to combat local council housing policies, or perhaps the DWP’s barbarism. But an incoming Labour government should be bolder than just bringing this into effect. It could also add socio-economic status to the list of protected characteristics to give real teeth to the fight against class discrimination.

The charity Just Fair has been working to promote economic and social rights through existing and new legal protections. Their policy director Koldo Casla points out that:

Unlike the UK, at least 20 other European countries provide legal protection against discrimination on grounds related to socio-economic status. In the light of most advanced international human rights standards and best practice from other countries, a future legal review could be the opportunity to recognise socio-economic status as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act.

To return to the question of employment, working-class people are routinely discriminated against in the professions. The professions are dominated by the middle class and are saturated with class prejudices, often carried by people who think of themselves as ‘progressives’. The job interview is one of the key points at which access to the professions is controlled by the gatekeepers. Sociologists have shown how a form of ‘cultural matching’ raises barriers for working-class candidates in job interviews. Middle-class gatekeepers feel, consciously or otherwise, more comfortable with those who come from similar backgrounds.

As the sociologist Lauren A. Rivera notes, ‘shared tastes, experiences, leisure pursuits and self-presentation styles’ between interviewers and interviewees function subtly to sort out who ‘fits’ and who does not along class lines. ‘Hiring is a powerful way in which employers shape labour market outcomes’ argues Rivera, and the job interview is the crucial gatekeeping process that facilitates ‘career opportunities for some groups, while blocking entry for others.’

Making class a protected characteristic could provide individuals and trade unions with powerful levers with which to help make professional institutions more representative – although of course, as with gender and race, legal protections do not automatically produce the desired outcomes. But it would provide organisations across the board with the motivation to collect data and implement training and recruitment practices that acknowledge the reality of class discrimination. And it would also provide working-class people with the power to challenge class discrimination when it happens.

The class discrimination against working-class access to the professions is an important issue because these professions are so influential on a societal level. The people who work in these professions are the policy makers, creating change and making decisions that affect people’s lives, but without representative input by the types of people often most effected by their decision-making.

The media are one of the most influential professions because they feed into the others. Their stereotypes of working-class lives have real effects as they inform the thinking of the policy makers and set the tone for what is acceptable or unacceptable. For example, had the media done their job and properly investigated the fact that the DWP has blood on its hands, the appalling treatment of welfare claimants since 2010 might have been more difficult. We note that the middle class take to the streets in their thousands over Brexit, but where are they over the DWP’s assault on the poor? The media play a key part in stirring people to action over some things but not others.

Class-based discrimination in the creative and cultural industries

Our recent documentary film The Acting Class showed how economic resources and various other disadvantages, ranging from geographical location outside the South-East, educational background, cultural knowledge and above all social networks, gradually and over time filters out would-be working-class acting talent from the profession. This is not only a matter of social justice for the individual involved, as with other professions, it has a wider societal impact. In this case, the stories we tell ourselves as a society are likely shaped by the class background of the acting talent that is available.

Across the creative industries, the problem of unpaid internships that Frances O’Grady highlighted in her TUC speech, are rife. Such practices give the economically advantaged – typically via their parents – the chance to gain crucial work experience in for example, the film and television industries – and build social networks, that working-class talent cannot access because they are working instead as a barista to pay the rent. A recent report by sociologists called Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries, noted that according to data from the Office for National Statistics, only 12.6% of workers in publishing come from working- class origins, only 12.4% in film, television and radio and only 18.2% in music, performing and visual arts. Yet those who are most successful within these industries, who are overwhelmingly middle-class and white, tend to believe that this situation reflects hard work and talent – in other words, a meritocracy. That is another reason why legislation is needed: to force a change in mindset which is at the moment broadly and self-servingly content with the status quo..

Within the neoliberal public sphere, working-class people are constantly denigrated, ridiculed and their lives examined through a middle-class optic, while working-class values and attitudes are delegitimized. This reinforces class divisions and in the process constructs middle-class mores as desirable characteristics we should all strive to emulate, while at the same time keeping neoliberalism and the global economic system safe from the demands of a potentially radical working-class project.

It’s time for the Labour and trade union movement to demand legal protection against class-based discrimination, which is perpetuating an unequal and unfair society.

Fostering solidarity through culture: GFTU's 120 years of supporting trade unions
Tuesday, 17 September 2019 09:40

Fostering solidarity through culture: GFTU's 120 years of supporting trade unions

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Paul Tims reviews the GFTU's recent booklet celebrating its 120th anniversary

The General Federation of Trade Unions recently celebrated its 120th Anniversary and, to mark the occasion, released a booklet designed to introduce newcomers to its work and goals. Although straightforward in its presentation, it’s a surprisingly dense gem of a document and serves both as a pocket history and an ideological primer.

In the early pages, we learn that the GFTU has its origins in the ideas of ‘New Unionism’ that began to take shape in the 1890s. Although there was considerable division between those who wanted to bring about an end to the capitalist system and those who wanted to develop trade unions within it, many prominent thinkers agreed that a federation to support trade unions was necessary.

The pre-existing TUC initially voted down the idea of a federation in 1896, but later came round to the idea, thanks in part to the writing of P.J. King and the support of Keir Hardie. In 1899, the GFTU was finally created with a remit to provide financial support and advice for unions, enabling them to strike without their members starving or facing legal repercussions. During these early years, the GFTU differed from the TUC that had created it quite dramatically. Whereas the GFTU aimed for day-to-day practical support, the TUC existed to discuss ideas and politics and to get trade union representatives into parliament.

Bolshevism or moderation

It wasn’t until later, during the rise of the USSR, that the GFTU’s ideology began to take on a concrete shape. The body had to choose whether to openly support Bolshevism or present a more moderate face in order to work with the British government to improve workers’ rights and secure the future of the unions. Its then leader, William A. Appleton, chose to steer the organisation away from Bolshevism in order to build an organisation that could work with and influence the UK government.

Ultimately, the labour movement that had spawned the GFTU gave rise to the Labour Party, while the TUC became the UK’s leading trade union body. However, thanks to its willingness to evolve and the astute decisions of its leadership, the GFTU survived and still plays an important role in supporting trade unions today.

The booklet’s potted history is even-handed (it freely admits that the GFTU often plays second fiddle to the TUC) while maintaining a positive vibe. However, the recitation of the organisation’s basic history is far less interesting than many of the individual highlights from that history. The GFTU’s booklet does an admirable job of showcasing the more bizarre, baffling, humorous and outright esoteric moments from its past. For example, we’re told that the miners’ union refused to join, despite the fact that the GFTU had attracted the support of many other large unions. We also discover that Isaac Mitchell, the first General Secretary of the organisation, though enthusiastic and tireless in his work for the union, was also so disorganised in his filing that he once managed to misplace a bond worth £10,000. Though it was successfully recovered, the GFTU was more careful about its bookkeeping thereafter.

However, the most important part of the 120th Anniversary document is also the most subtle. I refer to the insights into the GFTU’s sense of solidarity, which comes across in historical titbits and quotes. For example, from 1935 to 1937, the GFTU made an effort to get chain-makers recognised under new unemployment laws, so they could reap their benefits. From this we can gather that the organisation made a concerted effort to represent smaller unions and less well-unionised professions. This is supported by an earlier quote from Mitchell who (when he stood as a Labour party candidate in 1906) said that he sought to “represent all – except privilege”. We also learn that, during and after the First World War, the GFTU elected to support the admission of former soldiers into trade unions. This hadn’t been common practice before, but it helped cement the organisation’s commitment to solidarity.

Fostering solidarity through culture

The GFTU’s commitment to solidarity goes beyond purely practical matters: it’s enshrined on a deep cultural level. The modern GFTU actively pursues the cultural elevation of the working class in the hope of fostering solidarity. Although the 120th Anniversary booklet only touches lightly on the organisation’s cultural contributions, it’s worth noting that in recent years, they have hosted the country’s largest arts festival for trade unions, held a cultural festival for working-class Kurdish communities, and helped to promote plays about union history. The GFTU is even celebrating its 120th year by screening a series of films about women’s historic struggle to organise as part of the trade union movement. You can read more about that here in the Morning Star.

Perhaps the booklet’s greatest triumph, however, is the sense of continuity it provides between the GFTU’s historic roots and its present-day activities. It was born in the 1890s, in a time of political and ideological debate. Now it provides the tools of political thought to the next generation through accessible, left-leaning education programs. It was shaped by a need for solidarity among different types of workers, and now it regularly meets with trade unions and workers’ groups from around the world, thereby making that solidarity international.

The booklet is available here as a free downloadable pdf. Its graphic format is itself an example of GFTU's commitment to culture.

 

Culture by and for the working class – Inside Film and cultural democracy
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 28 June 2019 10:26

Culture by and for the working class – Inside Film and cultural democracy

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Deirdre O'Neill explains how the Inside Film project is implementing the principles of cultural democracy, by making a stand with the downtrodden, impoverished and silenced working class.

Inside Film is a filmmaking project that works in prisons, with people on parole and in our latest run of the project, with foodbank users. Run completely by volunteers, we teach the theory and practice of filmmaking. This integration of theory and practice we consider a critical intervention into the reality of working-class lives.

An awareness of the reality of life for the working class can be documented or theorized, but remains simply a question of perception if not accompanied by the ability to challenge that reality in meaningful ways. That is to bring to bear a force that makes systems accountable, broadens the individualized limits of neoliberal subjectivity, and promotes alternative interpretations. The fusing of theory and practice, what Marx referred to as praxis, makes possible the production of the alternative interpretations by people considered disposable under neo iberalism and whose narratives are currently removed from the pubic sphere.

Making films by, of and for the working class

The students taking part in the project make their own films – films that they script, storyboard, act in, shoot and edit. The idea underpinning the project is that working-class people have the right to access the means of cultural production, which in turn provides them with the skills, and builds the confidence, to represent their own lives.

The project is predicated on the fundamental belief that working-class values, attitudes and experiences are distinct from those of other classes. Research has demonstrated that working-class people think differently, have different priorities and share experiences that separate them from the middle and upper classes. Working-class people demonstrate a strong commitment to family and community and are more inclined to think and act collectively. They also tend to have a solid work ethic – although if you garnered your knowledge of working-class people from their representation on reality television programmes that denigrate participants whilst sensationalising poverty, you might not think this is true.

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The intentions of the Inside Film project rest upon the knowledge that working-class life is often defined externally to the people who live it, by people with no experience of working-class life. As Marx pointed out, the proletariat are ‘the class in civil society that is not of civil society’. I would argue that many cultural projects run for the ‘benefit’ of the working class are dependent on middle-class professionals who create situations where they can access funding, further their careers and signal their (declassed) progressiveness.

These projects do not attempt to build subjectivities or movements able to engage critically with neoliberalism. Instead, they develop institutionally approved education programmes focused on ameliorating the pain and despair caused by neoliberalism and in the process contain and manage any potential for dissent. Presenting as politically neutral these programmes and the projects they deliver perpetuate the hegemonic values of the social, cultural and economic status quo.

It is important to realize that the generally negative one-dimensional representations and constantly repeated stereotypes of working-class people and working-class lives within the dominant culture are based on the decontextualized end results of lives severely by neoliberalism and the predations of corporate capitalism. The processes that create those results, the psychological impact of classism, and the effects of its discriminatory practices on the subjectivity of working-class people are ignored.

The films made by the people we work with represent the ‘embodied experience’ of the working class, whether that involves blurring the boundaries between right and wrong – as the prison films do – or providing a stark picture of life without the means to provide enough food for yourself or your family – as The Food Bank Film does.

These are stories of working-class life narrated by working-class people. These films deal with the multiple realities of working-class life as it is lived now – the anger, the contradictions and sometimes the resignation that austerity has created and the consequences of being working-class in a society where you are not valued.

The question of how we define class has become a complex one, partly because of the persistence of the white male, (usually Northern) industrial worker stereotype that continues to occupy the cultural imagination of the middle classes whenever the question of class arises. This depoliticized stereotype conveniently situates the working class firmly within the safety zone of historical artifact, and serves the purpose of dismissing (the working) class as an analytical category, making it easy to ignore the collective commitment essential to broadening our understanding of democracy and citizenship.

The rendering of class as an archaic concept makes possible a refusal to engage with class as a dynamic category which is actively shaped by oppression and the changing demands of a global capitalism, thereby reproducing the norms of neoliberalism and in the process ignoring or sidelining questions of class.

The primacy of class

Our insistence on the primacy of class, the rejection of liberal subjectivity and the building of solidarity based on shared experience are crucial factors in the work done by Inside Film. Its fair to say we have never found this concentration on class to pose a problem for the students we work with. On the contrary we have found it useful in mounting a defence against the postmodern insistence on the impossibility of stable categories and paradigmatic bodies of knowledge.

You can call our position one of crude Marxism and accuse us of essentialism – that's fine, we will continue to work with the material reality of working-class lives while arguing that the essentialism you accuse us of is apparent everyday in the one dimensional representation of working-class people in mainstream culture.

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The work of Inside Film emphasizes the importance of placing dominant representations within the social relations of neoliberal capitalism and the wider context in which they exist, insisting on the dialectical relationship between economics, culture and power and arguing they need to be fought on the same front.

Neoliberalism is not simply an economic system; it is a political and cultural system that permeates all areas of life. If there was a time when we could embrace the idea that ‘culture is ordinary’, we now have to face the fact that culture is neoliberal. Neoliberalism has pervaded our sense of who we are, and has had a profound effect on the kind of culture we produce, the way in which that culture is consumed and understood, and what we define as culture.

Neoliberalism has mobilized all forms of culture, but especially the media, as a means of justifying the exploitation and ongoing assault on the rights of the poor. As argued elsewhere on Culture Matters, it attempts to reduce cultural activity to a conduit for a corporate ideology focused on the profit margin, and in the process remove its capacity for resistant forms and critical engagement.

That is why the concentration on culture does not mean an abandonment of the material realities of political economy – rather, it is recognition of how one has been mobilized to obfuscate the other, and how the realities of both cannot be exposed without an exploration of the way in which they are dialectically working together in order to support the systems based on individualism, competition and the profit motive.

So to say we are a filmmaking project is to simplify both our aims and our practice. We insist upon the indispensable role played by radical education (see also here). We believe in the importance of consciously exploring the complexities inherent in the interaction of the structural determinants of social relations; the role those determinants play in the formation of working class subjectivities; and the institutional constraints that reproduce class-determined ways of being that result in a hierarchical system made up of capitalist winners and working-class losers.

Hopefully what has become clear is that the Inside Film project is linking questions of representation to questions of class consciousness, and the potential for that consciousness to demand participation in a public sphere from which the working class have been strategically, deliberately and increasingly excluded.

It is demanding that the production of film and the process of education be viewed dialectically through the optic of the wider social and political spectrum of capitalist relations, particularly as they relate to class. Within the mainstream media, working-class meanings and working class realities are constructed as subordinate. Indeed the continuation of the present system is dependent on the exclusion and rejection of working-class meanings. The aim of the Inside Film project is to bring those subordinate meanings to the fore and to position it as the primary meanings. This can only be achieved by wresting control of the means of cultural production from those for whom the present state of affairs is both rewarding and profitable.

Crucially it means claiming working-class perspectives are not simply marginalized perspectives that need to be considered as one perspective amongst many. On the contrary, what we are arguing is that working-class experience and the knowledge embedded within that experience holds the potential to contribute to political and cultural transformations based on fairness, community and collective interests.

That is why the project aims to articulate and to bring into focus what should be glaringly obvious: it is working-class people who have the unique ability and the undeniable right to talk about what it means to be working-class, to represent themselves at this particular historical moment. The current emphasis on the politics of identity groups derives much of its legitimacy from its ability to direct attention away from questions of class politics and onto non-economic, more socially and politically acceptable forms of single-issue discrimination. Those issues are generated not by the capitalist system itself, as is the case with class, but emerge from the need to downplay the unequal distribution of wealth under capitalism.

The denial and disavowal of working-class experience within the dominant culture means that the necessary understanding that can lead to political transformation requires an excavation of working-class experience so that it can be re-evaluated, not under the terms of the values of the dominant culture but in relation to the specific values of working-class life.

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The concept of cultural democracy presents us with a choice. We can stay within the confines of what is politically, intellectually and culturally acceptable and tinker at the edges to make life a little less brutal for those who are deliberately excluded – or we can make a stand and align ourselves with the downtrodden, the impoverished, the silenced.

We believe that we can commit to the creation of an oppositional culture, critical of and resistant to the dominant representations and ideological concerns of the mainstream. The first step is to recognize the definitional power of the media, and the unequally distributed cultural and economic capital involved in accessing that power.

Inside Film, inside prisons

The Inside Film project has to be understood as an attempt to project us into a future that does not exist, which is not known, one that will be produced in the very act of projecting ourselves into it. This is not an imagined utopianism into which our ideas of something different must fit. Rather it is a struggle to wrench the future from those who are content to continue as we are and who truly believe there is no alternative.

Within the education system as a whole, the definition of culture is limited, usually operating within the confines of middle-class taste, grounded in middle-class experience, producing cultural products and supporting, funding, and delivering cultural products and activities that fit well into the present neoliberal environment.

To build a more egalitarian, democratic cultural landscape we need to remove the teaching of culture and provision of cultural artifacts from the hands of a middle-class elite whose status and well-paid jobs are dependent on preventing or refusing to challenge cultural inequalities. Within the prison sector it is not unusual for those serving prison sentences to take part in opera, theatre, and creative writing projects. I am not denying that people who are banged up all day don't enjoy this work and derive pleasure from being involved in creative activities, but these projects provide a top-down version of how we understand culture and offer no opportunity for a more critical and participatory engagement with the creative process.

These kind of cultural activities, like most cultural activities, are political practices embedded within a conventional educational strategy of delivering knowledge of legitimized cultural forms. It is presented as a cultural provision intent on improving the lives of marginalized people, but there is no critical analysis of the purpose served by art when it is delivered within the institutions of the state and must be approved by those institutions as a means of regulating the imagination, while confining any radical potential within the framework of officially sanctioned cultural production. A perfect example of having your ideological cake and eating it.

This model of cultural provision serves the purpose of reproducing existing modes of social, cultural, and economic power and the modes of perception that sustain them. Discussions of class, poverty, and inequality are mostly absent from these kinds of projects. Offering a superficial version
of reality, they are unable to go any further than that which is already visible, and point to the limits of pedagogic and cultural practices enshrined within the prevailing socioeconomic order.

In this model, cultural provision is considered part of a project of self-improvement, premised on the notion that to ‘improve’ themselves the marginalized or the (deliberately) excluded must learn to appreciate middle-class art forms and the implicit naturalization of capitalist structures contained within their content, form, and aesthetic strategies. This is not a conception of art that can openly address questions of class even though it takes place in one of the institutions where the class divide is at its starkest.

Within the prison, the organization of art-based activities, their content, and their delivery are dependent on a classed conception of the purpose of art. Both the definition of art and the perceived purpose of art are subject to a narrowly defined, aprioristic role that contributes to the consolidation of class power. This model of art and art provision is not grounded in a view of education or art as a social and civic engagement with the potential for a deeper understanding of, and a more critical engagement with, the social forces that impact on our lives, but in one embedded within the self-interest of the middle classes and the universalizing impetus of class power. Art provision for the working class then becomes nothing more than proof of their symbolic and material lack.

The hegemonic neoliberal culture of homogenized individualism and competition that shapes the subjectivities of all of us has made it more difficult to build solidarities based on classed experience. Our cultural landscape is premised on its relevance to corporate profits. So the task of a radical cultural project such as Inside Film is to interpose the experiences of working-class people into that landscape and in the process foster the ability to situate working-class experience in the interface between culture as a way of maintaining social control, and culture as a potentially disruptive force linked once again to the everyday lives of the people who live it.

For more information on Inside Film, see here.

Profound new visions of a better world: why we need cultural education
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 10 June 2019 20:05

Profound new visions of a better world: why we need cultural education

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Chris Guiton explains why it is essential that the labour movement uses a variety of political and cultural educational programmes to make the case for socialism

Antonio Gramsci’s profound insight that culture is a key site of political and social struggle remains as valid today as it was in the 1930s. Most of us on the Left understand that ruling-class ‘hegemony’ – the influence the capitalist class has over what counts as knowledge, beliefs and values in our society – is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, the arts, religion and education. And we recognise that while this power is not always visible, it is tremendously important in the manufacture of consent and conferral of legitimacy on capitalism and its current neoliberal manifestation.

So, it’s really encouraging to see senior figures in the labour and trade union movement talking about the need to reinvigorate political education. It has a crucial role to play in giving ordinary people the tools they need to analyse our current economic and political system and empower them to fight for a socialist alternative. But why is the cultural sphere so often neglected or sidelined in these discussions?

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It might appear odd that this is even an issue. After all, the labour movement has a rich history of working-class self-education, delivered through trade unions, political parties, libraries, the Plebs League, the Workers’ Educational Association and other institutions, most of which engaged with culture in its various forms. But most of this activity started to decline in the 1980s as trade union education was depoliticised by its reliance on Government funding, adult and further education provision experienced a class-based assault on its very being given its association with working-class politics and emancipation, and the Labour Party neglected its roots and lost its political compass.

There is an urgent need to revive this tradition of working-class education, restore infrastructure and funding, and rediscover an understanding of its democratising potential. This is an essential step if we are to ensure that a campaigning Labour Party can both win and retain political power. It will help people challenge the neoliberal narrative that ‘there is no alternative’ to the capitalist status quo by fostering a counter-hegemonic understanding of how capitalism operates, why political struggle has always been required to secure democratic rights, and the challenges we face in confronting a system which is clearly rigged against ordinary people.

What is cultural education?

But why does cultural education matter? What is it exactly and how does it relate to political education?

The explosion of popular culture since Gramsci’s time of writing (the Prison Notebooks were written between 1929 and 1935) has reinforced the significance of his thinking. Corporate-driven popular culture – films, TV, music etc – produces bland, uniform cultural products that encourage passive, docile consumption of their anodyne pleasures; promotes an individualised, competitive view of life; and discourages independent, creative, critical thinking.

Historically, there has been a tendency on the Left to underestimate culture’s political importance. Its significance has either been downplayed, with culture seen as an act of often private and largely passive consumption, or it has been viewed in instrumental terms as a weapon in the political struggle for socialism. But a more constructive, utopian perspective also exists, based on the understanding that there is a dynamic relationship between the cultural struggle and the political struggle. As the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein once said, “The revolution introduced me to art, and art, in its own turn, brought me to the revolution.” Socialism, then, can ultimately be viewed as a weapon in the fight for an enriched and democratic human culture.

Building on the work of Gramsci, the Marxist theorist and critic Raymond Williams was keen to promote the concept of a cultural revolution to accompany the economic and political revolutions. He understood this as a ‘long revolution’ leading to socialism through the extension and deepening of cultural and educational democratisation. He sought to articulate the ways in which we might give voice to our lived experiences, currently marginalised by a hegemonic, capitalist narrative. A fully developed campaign for cultural democracy plays a key role here, becoming a mechanism for resistance to and change of the dominant culture in all its manifestations.

Challenging the appropriation and commodification of cultural activities by the ruling class starts from this understanding. The arts can take us into imagined worlds and enable us to understand how others live. Listening to the music of John Coltrane, reading the novels of Angela Carter or looking at a painting by Cézanne can provide pleasure as well as help people deal with the alienation and oppression they encounter in their everyday lives. Culture can bring us together in shared, collaborative activities which are enjoyable in their own right.

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It can also take on a more explicit counter-hegemonic character, encouraging us to think critically, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world. Watching the film of Paul Robeson singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” to a group of Scottish miners in an Edinburgh colliery canteen in 1949 brings into sharp relief the emancipatory potential of linking culture to politics. At its best, culture not only has the potential to entertain and enlighten us, but can act as a liberating force, providing a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues, assert our common humanity against the divisions of class, gender and race caused by capitalism, and inspire radical change in the real world.

Similar benefits flow from other cultural activities such as playing or participating in sport, working on an allotment and socialising in pubs, cafés and restaurants. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they can provide multiple opportunities for engagement with others, which reflect the fundamentally social nature of human beings, emotional growth, and the encouragement of a collective commitment to the common good. This is based on an understanding that culture comes in many shapes and forms.

However, it’s all too common for discussions on culture to become a vehicle for the delivery of elitist perspectives on the relative values of its different manifestations. The frequently expressed division between so-called ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’ conveniently ignores the barriers created by the Industrial Revolution to the production and enjoyment of culture by ordinary people.

It is clearly designed to exclude the working class from appreciation of a broad range of cultural pursuits, and disempower them by dismissing typical working-class cultural activities as having less intrinsic value than their upper-class counterparts. It is also an expression of snobbery, which says more about the person uttering it than the subject to hand. These are important points. Kurt Weill, the German composer and Bertolt Brecht collaborator, really nailed it with his comment, “I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music and bad music.”

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Let's return to Raymond Williams, who famously noted that ‘culture is ordinary’. His genius was to focus on the importance of people’s lived experience, as he explained, using ‘the word culture in two senses: to mean a whole way of life – the common meanings; [as well as] to mean the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort.’ And to insist on the importance of both senses, in conjunction.

As the Left mobilises, and the struggle against neoliberalism intensifies, we’re presented with a fantastic opportunity to promote and reclaim working-class culture, rediscover the value of culture generally as a means of individual and collective empowerment, and learn how to use art and culture in the battle for hearts and minds that is crucial to effective political organising, campaigning and education. While class and capitalism shape our culture, the scope to develop an independent and potentially resistant working-class culture remains very much in front of us, as ordinary people continue to resist capitalist norms and create their own meanings.

The link between culture and education

How does the link between culture and education manifest itself? The Russian psychologist and teacher, Lev Vygotsky, was fascinated by the connection between them. As a Marxist, he believed that human concepts are rooted in social activity as humans are, fundamentally, social beings. A person’s understanding of the world is inextricably rooted in social relations, with individuals constructing meaning from their social experiences, and then acting upon them accordingly. Participation in cultural activity provides a means of knowledge construction, involving the shared transformation of meaning constructed with others, leading to further development and learning.

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Paulo Freire by Luiz Carlos Cappellano

In a similar vein, the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, developed an educational method and approach particularly suited to labour movement and trade union education, because of its informal and people-centred approach, its emphasis on dialogue and its concern for liberating the oppressed. Freire’s critical pedagogy is based upon the core concept of ‘praxis’, defined as the unification of reflection and action. The aim is to create a pedagogy that enables both teachers and students to critically reflect upon reality, take transformative action to change that reality and work to create a better world.

Crucially, it is a dialogue of equals, where informal education takes place on a dialogical (or conversational) basis rather than centred on a formal curriculum, located in the lived experience of participants if it is to have meaning for them and to help generate new ways of acting in the world. There is a clear focus on building a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, working with those who do not have a voice to develop an in-depth understanding of the world and the social and political contradictions that characterise capitalist society.

Inevitably, there are many people who find it difficult to make the connection between culture and politics. In the wake of Thatcherism, and the embrace of neoliberalism by the entire political establishment and much of the media, there are several generations of people who have grown up without the experience of political and cultural struggle.

This is often expressed as ‘what’s politics got to do with football’ or ‘I don’t understand modern art’. This means starting from an understanding of where people are and leading them towards a better grasp of how politics defines everything we do, including our access to, and participation in, art and culture, how much it costs and how it is organised. It means challenging the ‘pedagogy of repression’, where people are conditioned to think that they have no democratic rights, no agency and no power to fight for social change. Which, of course, explains why the Government fights so hard against anything resembling a critical pedagogy in our education system – because it emphasises critical reflection, bridging the gap between everyday life and learning, and underlining the link between power and knowledge.

Why we need a broad-based programme of political and cultural education

Clearly, the development and application of political and cultural education isn’t a simple hierarchical, top-down process. Ideas must come from below as well as above. If the Labour Party and other labour movement institutions are to engage with a broad cross-section of people and develop a genuine social movement, they need to recognise the power of grassroots activism and encourage debate, participation and collaborative working.           

Trade unions, the Labour Party and other labour movement organisations such as Momentum, need to develop comprehensive programmes of political and cultural education which are accessible, flexible and relevant. Online learning can play an important part in this. But nothing beats getting together in a shared environment to develop an understanding of the politics of resistance.

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So, the fact that the annual The World Transformed festival, which runs alongside Labour Party Conference, is being replicated in a series of events around the country is welcome. There is a marvellous opportunity here to reach out beyond traditional forms of political engagement and initiate a dialogue with people about what we want from society, the contribution that culture can make to the development of a better world, and how we radicalise everyday life and develop effective political strategies that deliver systemic change and fundamental shifts in power.

What might a typical programme of cultural education, nested in a larger political education framework, actually look like? There’s no uniform template for such a programme. But, building on existing good practice, it might include consideration of topics such as:

- How radical poetry, theatre, music and other forms of culture can help us understand issues around exclusion, poverty and inequality, give voice to the voiceless, promote community engagement and develop deeper levels of political consciousness.

- How art and culture can be used to understand and challenge existing power structures and create the space for radical change.

- How we balance what Marx called ‘necessary labour time’ with the free time to enjoy social and cultural activities that bring us together and allow us to develop our individual creativity.

- How pubs, clubs, cafes, community centres, theatres and other venues play an important social role, acting as the ‘glue’ that holds communities together, contributing to people’s happiness and wellbeing, and to social cohesion.

- How the commodification of sports such as football, which provide entertainment and emotional engagement for millions of people, is a classic example of the way neoliberalism erodes not just the social origins of the game, but potentially destroys it by subjecting everything to the search for corporate profit.

- How to develop local campaigns which bring politics and culture together and which rediscover, protect and develop working-class culture.

- How to challenge the negative role that the mass media (TV, radio, social media etc) plays in modern culture, bombarding us with a range of messages which promote competitive individualism, mindless consumerism and passive consumption of a culture designed to discourage dissent.

- How the systematic distortion of the news displayed by our largely right-wing newspapers and other media helps ‘manufacture consent’ for a reactionary political agenda.

More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging a broad range of grassroots cultural formations and activities, which have the potential to link to political activism. The explosive anti-establishment energy unleashed by punk in the late 1970s was the DIY cultural ethic at its best. More recently, grassroots football fan clubs have made heroic efforts to challenge corporate control of the bigger football clubs and then gone on to build interest in more explicitly political campaigns against, for example, racism, sexism or homophobia.

There are multiple examples up and down the country of organisations delivering events which make the link between politics and culture explicit, in social clubs, festivals and political meetings. The challenge is to broaden and deepen this activity and develop approaches that liberate us from traditional, bureaucratic forms of political engagement, deploy innovative organising techniques appropriate to a 21st century environment, and which embrace a collectivist ethic whilst encouraging a diversity of approaches.

Kids Cook Real Food on the set advanced cooking stir fry

There are also many examples of organisations working effectively at various forms of cultural activity which don’t have an explicitly political flavour – whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films – for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities are also clearly valuable. By providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.

By establishing learning spaces that are outward-looking, creative and empowering, art and culture can do things that political information by itself can’t. It can help build the social movement vital to the success of socialism.

The challenge is how to build on these foundations in a way which promotes the potential for all types of art and culture to provide opportunities for the articulation of alternatives to dominant views of society, which breaks down the barriers between ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ of culture, and which underpins the development of a politics of radical social and political change. Whatever solutions emerge, the process must facilitate and encourage the formation of new collaborative networks at local, regional and national levels which are democratic, participative and empowering. And which help develop a self-sustaining ecosystem of socialist and progressive groups working towards the common goal of a fairer society.

To return to someone we started with, Gramsci famously said, ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’

We are living in very dangerous times as the crisis of capitalism deepens, reactionary forces in society resort to increasingly desperate measures to cling onto power, right-wing extremism is on the rise and the smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party plumbs new depths. We are at a critical juncture in the struggle and the battle of ideas will only intensify. Poets, musicians, artists and others can shed light on the problems faced by society, offer profound new visions of a better world and act as harbingers of change. It is therefore essential that the labour movement seizes the opportunity to use a variety of political and cultural educational programmes to make the case for socialism.

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Sunday, 24 March 2019 14:34

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other

Written by

Sean Ledwith reviews Angels and Demons, by Tony McKenna, a collection of essays on artists, writers and politicians written from a historical materialist perspective.

The role of the individual in history has been one of the perennial debates throughout the development of Marxist theory. Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century were keen to dissociate themselves from the ‘great man view of history’ that had characterised much of bourgeois scholarship up to that point. The defining feature of historical materialism as an analytical tool in their hands was to transfer the focus of attention away from the actions and intentions of individuals, and onto the structural forces and relations of production that have combined to create a succession of modes of production across the millennia of human history.

At the same time, as revolutionary activists and not simply disinterested scholars, the founders stressed the ongoing importance of human agency and the capacity of individuals to operate with a degree of choice, albeit within the constraints of these subterranean processes. This fine balance between structure and agency is neatly encapsulated in a celebrated passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Of course, subsequent generations of thinkers, seeking to follow the founders’ example, have not always succeeded in reproducing both elements of this conceptual tension; oscillating at times between the voluntarism associated with Sartre and others, and the subject-less paradigm constructed most intricately by Althusser.

Anyone looking for a modern attempt to recreate the dialectical balance between the individual and wider social forces in the spirit of Marx and Engels should refer to this highly readable collection of essays by Tony McKenna. The author impressively surveys the lives of a number of individuals across the fields of politics, philosophy and the arts who have had a major impact – for good or ill – on human affairs.

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Nicholas II

McKenna takes his theoretical cue from a passage in Trotsky’s seminal History of the Russian Revolution in which the character of Nicholas II is portrayed as an amalgam of the subjective and objective:

In Trotsky’s account, the personal and the political achieve a harmonious but terrible synthesis, for in the person of the last Tsar is embodied all the decadence, fatality, pettiness, self-deception, brass ignorance, denial and hopelessness of a historical tendency which has entered into an inevitable, mortal freefall. (3)

Developing the template provided by Trotsky for a distinctively Marxist approach to biography, the author persuasively argues that a nuanced version of historical materialism, eschewing both crude determinism and naïve individualism, can creatively identify the strands that link the lives of the one with the many. The personalities he discusses are not reducible to mere abstract cyphers, the personal representatives of mechanical, anonymous historical forces, but rather their art and activity, their interests and individuality, only resonates its full uniqueness and meaning in the context of the historical epoch, and the underlying social and political contradictions which set the basis for it. (6)

As a formulation of the Marxist conception of the role of the individual in history, McKenna here provides a valuable new iteration of the analyses of Marx, Trotsky and others in previous eras.

The author divides his ten subjects into the two categories alluded to in the title. This classification follows a method that in more familiar terms consists of radicals and reactionaries. In the former camp, we find Victor Hugo, Hugo Chavez, Rembrandt, Andrea Dworkin, William Blake and Jeremy Corbyn. The ‘Demons’ team is made up of Christopher Hitchens, Schopenhauer, Hillary Clinton and Trump.

It would be difficult to think of more diverse and anomalous assortment of case studies for McKenna’s thesis that historical materialism can usefully contextualise the personal with the political! However, he deploys with virtuosity a remarkable grasp of the breadth of cultural, economic and political forces at work in the lives of these personalities. Anyone interested in any of the above figures will find their understanding enhanced by McKenna‘s sophisticated delineation of how the respective subject’s ideology was shaped by the dynamics of the age.

The only slight drawback of the author’s selection is that the personalities are not analysed in chronological order. The reader for example can find herself rewinding from Hitchens in the twentieth century to Rembrandt in the seventeenth, and similarly from Dworkin in the twentieth to Blake in the eighteenth. McKenna perceptively suggests the key to explications of individual psychology from a Marxist perceptive should comprehend how major figures mediate most profoundly the most significant contradictions within the capitalist order at different stages in its development. (15)

It might have been preferable, therefore, if each study more evidently reflected a step-change in the operations of the rule of capital from the dawn of the bourgeois revolutions to today’s seemingly remorseless neoliberal hegemony. However, this consideration does not detract from the elegance and power of McKenna’s expositions.

The emphasis on contradictions in an individual personality is the fundamental insight that lies at the heart of McKenna’s methodology. Again, in this aspect he follows in the tradition of some of the best thinkers in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks of the 1930s, drew attention to ‘contradictory consciousness’ as one of the symptoms of alienation in the mental framework of every subject living under the role of capital.

Voloshinov, in the previous decade, explored the phenomenon of ‘multi-voicedness’ and the manner in which the consciousness of an individual can simultaneously contain ideological input from a range of sources, some of which may be conflicting. Likewise, the author here contends that the key to unlocking human personality is the way in which the contradictions of the age are manifested in the unique experience of every person. The result of this methodology is a sequence of portraits that fulfils Gramsci’s guidance on how biography in the tradition of historical materialism can produce insights that are superior to its bourgeois counterpart:

They never let you have an immediate, direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.

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Rembrandt, Self-portrait at the age of 63

In the moving chapter on Rembrandt, McKenna elucidates how the painter’s sublime genius lay in his ability to tune into the contradictions of the world’s first bourgeois revolution as the newly born Dutch capitalist state threw off the yoke of the Spanish Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century:

For he channelled this dualism in an art which attains a new depth of individuality and interority, illuminating the flickering shadows of the soul, while at the same time possessing the kind of aesthetic integrity which was able to express the suffering of an age, allowing it to bleed into the backdrop of his paintings. (96)

450px Rembrandt Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son Google Art Project

McKenna recounts how many of Rembrandt’s portraits of the 1630s, such as ‘The Prodigal Son in the Brothel’, are of the moneyed bourgeoisie whose ‘exuberant political freedoms' (89) are expressed in the lavish and salubrious scenes depicted around the characters. The optimism and self-confidence of an embryonic ruling class that is taking a torch to the decaying carcass of feudalism is almost palpable.

1024px Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The greatness of Rembrandt, however, is that the artist notes, amid the surging power of the Dutch bourgeoisie, a sense that its hegemony will be built not on the abolition of exploitation but only a new type of exploitation. Describing the iconic ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp’, McKenna draws our attention to the attitude of the scientists looking down on the corpse in front of them: They see him only in terms of an object like any other, to be appropriated, to be carved up; as a means to enhance their own material and intellectual powers. (93)

This picture is conventionally interpreted as representing the humanism and idealism of the scientific revolution of the early modern age. With an appropriate lightness of touch, however, McKenna deploys a Marxist lens to re-imagine it as a portent of the calculated disinterest the capitalist class retains for the millions of subjects who labour in its name.

At no point does the author’s analysis relapse into a crude materialism that might see Rembrandt as the artist of the Dutch bourgeois revolution and little else. McKenna does not lose sight of the fact that the reason the artist remains phenomenally popular is that he addresses anxieties and concerns that continue to exercise the human imagination, and that probably always will.

Rembrandt bue squartato 1655 01

For example, ‘The Slaughtered Ox’ from 1643 contains an enigmatic power that seemingly defies rational explanation. The image of a butchered bovine cadaver in a basement at first would appear to be an unlikely source of fascination. For McKenna, however, the painting brutally reminds us of the material reality of our existence as transient beings in a universe ultimately beyond our comprehension:

Rembrandt is making us aware that, ultimately, this is our destiny – that, each day, life crucifies us that little bit more and that little more slowly, through the sense of loss and suffering we must inevitably accumulate. (102)

If Rembrandt is rightly one of the eponymous angels of the collection, Christopher Hitchens as one of the most famous critics and polemicist of our age falls into the less desirable category. His championing of the calamitous Bush-Blair inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003 is probably the main reason Hitchens was suitably dubbed as a fallen angel in the eyes of many on the radical left. McKenna ultimately concurs with this damning verdict but does not elide over Hitchens’ undoubted qualities as a writer and is generous in acknowledging his subject’s stoical battle against cancer in the twilight of his life:

Hitchens had a wonderful facility with words. His literary flair surpasses that of his idol Orwell, in my view, in terms of its fluidity and grace…even in his later years, the increasingly rotund figure of this patrician journalist was in possession of a certain stoutly courage. (71-72)

Hitchens’ espousal of Western imperialism in his last decade can appear bizarrely incongruous in the light of his previous association with the revolutionary left. As McKenna observes, the most obvious explanation would be that ‘the allure of money and privilege no doubt played its part’. (70) But the author contends that a more productive line of thought is to trace the conflict that raged within Hitchens’ persona throughout his life between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the desire to shock the establishment, and on the other, the need to be part of it. In McKenna’s words:

The need to have it both ways, so to say-to be able to indulge the exhilarating frisson and enjoy the moral vitality which are the remits of the freedom-fighter, while simultaneously partaking in the silky confidences of the most famous and powerful; this was the central, elemental contradiction which fissured across Hitchens’ existence. (82)

Perhaps the moral of this particular life is that although contradictions are the essence of the human condition, they do not always play out without resolution. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks forced Hitchens to decide whether he would decisively take the side of the oppressed or the oppressor. His total failure to comprehend Islamism as a distorted form of resistance to imperial hegemony led him into the welcoming arms of Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon cabal in Washington.

McKenna’s reflective adoption of a Marxist approach to psychology here highlights the advantage of not focusing on our interiority alone; but also perceiving how by events in the external world can force us to confront the contradictions within ourselves. The fiery fiasco of the ‘War on Terror’ forced Hitchens to face the paradoxes of his own existence – and he was found wanting.

Jeremy Corbyn Leader of the Labour Party UK

McKenna’s closing chapter is a timely assessment of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. As the Tory government stumbles through the Brexit morass, the prospect of the Labour Leader walking through the black door of Number 10 is tantalisingly real. In the neatly titled ‘Chronicle of a Coup Foretold’ McKenna predicts that such a scenario would trigger a major crisis of the British state, in which the aspirations of millions of working-class people, long neglected by a venal elite, would be pitched against the centuries-old conservatism of the ruling class. Unlike the previous profiles in the book, McKenna does not detect any deep contradictions in Corbyn’s personality, and the author’s focus is more on a looming rupture in the wider body politic. In fact, it is fair to say that the Labour leader’s apparent lack of hidden agendas – conscious or otherwise – is the root of his remarkable appeal. Corbyn’s lack of complexity and personal ambition is a refreshing change from his recent predecessors in the post:

Jeremy Corbyn is a kind, decent, reasonable man who evinces a sense of faint distaste and aloofness to the more savage and Machiavellian manoeuvrings, which are so much a part of modern politics. (238)

Nevertheless, McKenna shrewdly cautions us that these qualities are eerily reminiscent of Salvador Allende, Chile’s doomed socialist Prime Minister of the early 1970s. Allende believed decency and reason would be enough to restrain the dark forces of military intervention that stood at his side in the last weeks of his administration. By the time he realised they were actually his deadliest enemies, it was too late. If Corbyn is not to suffer a similar fate in the future, the whole labour movement in the UK will need to realise there can be no common ground in the event of a clash between the ‘Angels and Demons’ – one must subdue the other.

Angels and Demons is available here.

from The Acting Class: Tom Stocks visits Eton whose alumni include Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis, Hugh Lawrie and Eddie Redmayne
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 20 March 2019 14:49

The Gentrification of Culture

Written by

Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne discuss the decline and colonisation of working-class culture, introduce The Acting Class and call for culture to be at the cutting edge of counter-hegemonic challenges to the dominant culture

The products of film, television and theatre are disseminated in and through institutions and networks that are situated within economic and ideological constraints and hegemonic discourses. Representations of the working class within this circuit are often partial, uninformed and invariably negative. But, even so, they go on to have an afterlife as visual images recycled repeatedly until they harden into the taken for granted ‘knowledge’ of our society.

There is another recycling moment going on as well, the return, the doubling back from the progress made after the Second World War to the squalor, poverty, low wages, hunger and diseases that would have been recognizable to the Victorians. Nothing new to see here; just the British class system doing what it does best – allowing the middle and upper classes to use all the methods in their power to justify the cruelty and inequalities of the system it perpetuates.

The political and cultural expectations of the post Second World War period were conceptualised as an improvement in the living conditions of the working class – new housing, the welfare state, education, maintenance grants, a brave new world built by and made possible by the physical hard work and (to a certain extent) the tax contributions of the working class. The potential afforded by economic security – although far from accessible to everyone – led to a growing confidence amongst the working class at this time which in turn led to the demand for a more overt cultural presence.

There was an independent film movement in the 1970s, and during the 60s through to the beginning of the 80s television became more radical, showing the work of Ken Loach, Dennis Potter and John McGrath. Channel 4 signed up to the Workshop Agreement in the 1980s, which created an infrastructure of radical cultural workers whose praxis included political activism, education, and writing as well as film making. The work produced in all cultural spheres was often work that engaged with and explored in detail the lives of the working class. Seeing the lives of working-class people taken seriously on the television and cinema screens allowed an engagement with the cultural life of the country and provided the potential for political engagement and transformative politics.

The election of Thatcher in 1979 changed the way we think about culture and the way in which it is organized. Now it became something to be organized by an expert middle class, from the top down. It was to be sponsored, monetized, marketized and crucially, standardized. The support offered to radical cultural workers was removed and only those with independent means or rich parents could afford to take part in an increasingly narrow media landscape. In the process the popular culture of the working classes was appropriated and reinvented as middle-class culture.

The dominance of London in both the production and consumption of the arts, and the dominance of the middle class in London, has led to a situation where the middle and upper classes are able to dominate all areas of the arts: film, theatre, television, music and reproduce them in their own image, while at the same time ensuring the continuation of generational privileges.

london culture

The lack of social housing, the inability to rent cheaply, the lack of well-paid full-time contracted work, and the inadequacy of welfare benefits that are tied to stringent rules and surveillance all work together to marginalize the working class, and contribute to what has become a very narrow creative and cultural landscape. What appears to be the exclusion of the working class from geographical spaces gentrified by the professional middle class serves the additional function of excluding them from artistic production.

The decline of the culture of the working class has been one of the most powerful, telling developments in British society. John McGrath linked this decline of working-class culture to the systematic destruction by consecutive governments of the institutions embedded within the lives and history of the working class, out of which this culture grew and which sustained it. Crucially, for McGrath, these institutions were the very embodiment of working-class consciousness. If, as McGrath claimed, it was through these cultural institutions and the forms they took that the working class were able to recognize and identify themselves as a class with a distinct set of experiences differentiating them from other classes, then it follows that at the present moment, it is of the utmost importance that the working class produce their own cultural forms that are able to translate their own experiences.

Geographically we can consider gentrification as a form of internal ‘colonisation’. Colonisation is the practice of invading or settling on already occupied land for the purpose of acquiring assets and displacing indigenous populations by a more economically powerful and socially dominant group. Considering colonisation within this optic as a practice carried out by the middle classes brings into focus the ideological and material displacement of the working class. The success of the gentrification project can only be understood if we consider the physical, geographical aspect in a relational sense by mapping it onto cultural practices, forms of subjectivity and of course media representations which legitimise and normalise middle-class cultures of competitive individualism, status-seeking and accumulated and cumulative disdain for the working class based on feelings of superiority, career success and material acquisition.

The cultural and arts professions would like to consider themselves a meritocracy, magically escaping the structural determinants of class exclusion. In fact they are a perfect microcosm of the British class system, mediated through the lens of middle-class media workers who dominate the ‘creative’ industries which are responsible for telling the stories and projecting the images we have of ourselves and who ‘we’ are.

Our documentary feature film The Acting Class explores how this broader political economy works and with what consequences in the acting industry. The documentary won the International Labour Film Festival award 2017, an indication perhaps of the increasing awareness that the cultural industries are subject to similar dynamics of inequality and precarity as other sectors of the economy. The documentary interviews both established actors such as Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Samuel West, as well as young aspiring actors trying to break into the profession today.

Maxine peake with tom stocks 700x455

Maxine Peake with Tom Stocks

Among the latter are Tom Stocks, a working-class actor from Bolton who set up Actor Awareness when he could not afford to take up his Masters in Acting at East 15 drama school. Among the multiple barriers to entry are:

- the dominance of the profession by the middle class in key decision-making roles; the project-by-project nature of the profession that gradually weeds out those who do not have access to an independent income (or the Bank of Mum and Dad);

- the London-centric nature of the profession that excludes actors of working-class origin from outside the capital;

- the subtle shaping of expectations and knowledge from a young age that makes acting seem ‘not for the likes of us’; and

- the erosion of culture and arts provision on the school curriculum.

In addition, there are the elite networks forged in Oxbridge and perpetuated in the profession, networks which Actor Awareness for example tries to counter by developing a network and mutual support system for the working-class actor.

The film has been seen by actors, educators, students, activists and trade unionists, as well as members of the general public. Digital technology has made possible alternative networks of film screenings and facilitated the organization of screenings in non-theatrical as well as theatrical venues. In this way the film becomes more than a series of images, it becomes a political intervention into present circumstances and offers the potential to change the conditions it is dealing with. Question and answer sessions build on immediate audience reactions of anger and emotional responses. One of the questions we are always asked is what can we do to bring about change?

This question has already contributed to the possibility of change, since audience engagement can have tangible results. For example, we have screened the film at a number of Equity branches, to help raise awareness within the actors’ union, and the film has fed into a wider process within the union to prioritise the issue of class exclusion in the sector. We also worked with The Equality Trust and Just Fair as part of their campaign to see Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 brought into effect. Section 1 requires public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to how their role can be used to reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage. This statutory duty could be a powerful lever for communities and activists to hold public bodies to account, for perpetuating class discrimination across all sectors and not just in relation to arts and culture.

Any counter-hegemonic challenge must begin with culture.

The film but can be purchased through the website and can be made available if anyone would like to arrange a screening.

Silenced voices from the margins: Irish working-class writing
Thursday, 14 March 2019 15:29

Silenced voices from the margins: Irish working-class writing

Written by

Jenny Farrell reviews a new anthology of working-class writing

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, edited by Michael Pierse (CUP 2017) is a book to be greatly welcomed. It is the first study of such scope, attempting to present and analyse the entire body of Irish working-class literature. It begins with the first writings of rural workers in the 18th century and brings the reader right up to the present day.

The study of working-class literature was a significant field of Marxist research in the socialist countries, beginning in the Soviet Union, where the works of such authors were translated, analysed and published from early on. It is left to the German expert Gustav Klaus, author of the Afterword, to state this.

Twenty-two chapters examine various aspects of this seriously under-researched field of literature, ranging across three centuries and three continents. The book attempts to give as comprehensive an overview as possible. Its publication coincides with similar companions to the working-class literature of Britain and the United States. 

There is of course always a degree of reservation when working-class literature comes under the scrutiny of largely middle-class academics. In parallel to the militancy with which the gender of authors acceptable to writing about women is scrutinised, one might ask: How familiar are these academics with the working-class experience? How much of this experience will be grasped? What do they see, and what not? How high-handed will they be in commenting on the literary production of the working class? These are valid concerns.

In antagonistic class society, the working class comprises of those people who possess nothing but their labour power. They are in an exploitative relationship with the owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie, and participate only marginally in the fruits of their labour. As producers of surplus value, they create the basis of national wealth, yet their living conditions are frequently precarious. The rural proletariat must be included among working-class writers. Small farmers are a periphery group of the rural proletariat, who often hardly exist above subsistence level, while contributing to the national wealth. Equally peripheral to the working class are the ever-increasing number of people in precarious employment, and the unemployed.

Working-class authors must be read not merely in terms of their origins but also of how central this experience is to their writing, how aware they are of the inhuman and war-hungry system that exploits them, how their characters envisage their own emancipation and a better, more humane and peace-loving world.

One of the most striking omissions in the book is any recognition of working-class writing in the Irish language. There is no dedicated chapter on this, nor is there any meaningful inclusion of writers in Irish.

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Decorated initial by Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin, 1821

We mention some of these here to indicate the seriousness of this exclusion. Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), cowherd and labourer, later teacher and scribe, joined with the United Irishmen in their anti-colonial struggle. From a long line of Gaelic scribes, Ó Longáin, born when the role and prominence of Gaelic scribes was all but lost, eked out an existence, working as a wandering labourer, and living in poverty for most of his life. Neither is there any discussion of the 20th century literary giants Pádraic Ó Conaire, Máirtin Ó Caidhin, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, or Máirtín Ó Direáin.

Pádraic Ó Conaire wrote the finest (only) no-holds-barred novel Deoraíocht (Exile) dealing with the raw reality of the Irish working class and Gaeltacht diaspora in early 20th century London, and a plethora of short stories in which his identification with the working class is made clear. 

Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a left republican who spent the 2nd World War years in the Curragh prison camp, is arguably the finest 20th century Irish-language prose writer. His collections of short stories and novel Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay) reflect the grinding poverty and hopelessness of his people, the small farmers and fisher folk of the West Galway Gaeltacht, on whose behalf he agitated all of his adult life.

The prose writing of Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, a building labourer in Northampton and the English Midlands, especially his Dialann Deoraí (An Emigrant’s Diary) – express the life and feelings of mid-20th c fellow Gaeltacht labourers in England. A member of the British Labour Party, his writing breathes his socialist sensibility. 

Máirtín Ó Direáin

Máirtín Ó Direáin is the best 20th c Irish-language poet. His childhood in a poverty-stricken household in Inis Mór, Aran, instilled in him a lifelong sympathy for all oppressed, by the capitalist order which finds full expression in his poetry. His fine lament for James Connolly mirrors that of Somhairle Maclean, the leading 20th century Scottish Gaelic poet, of marked communist sympathies, remembered also for his poetic celebration of John Maclean and the Red Clyde.

In the early chapters, there is also a surprising sense of insularity. Although the popularity of the radical Scottish poet Robert Burns among the working class in 18th and 19th century Ireland is mentioned several times, there is no exploration as to why that might have been the case. Indeed, the epochal upheaval of the American and French Revolutions, their unprecedented and hope-inspiring effect on the working classes of all of Europe with the promise of equality, comradeship and liberty, are not part of the picture. Yet these events, along with the anti-colonial revolution in Haiti, were major factors in the development of the United Irishmen, who had mass support in Ireland and in their later years increasingly attracted working-class members. Without such a contextual, historical context, the writings of the working class lose the meaning they had at the time.

Robert Tressell Cover resized

Occasionally, the tone of an author towards the writer discussed comes across as slightly patronising. Dublin-born Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is the first major working-class novel in English literature. It was written between 1906 and 1910 and first published posthumously in abridged editions in 1914 and 1916. Tressell (Robert Noonan) found no publisher and no editor, and the abridged versions removed his socialist ideas from the novel. Its full text only appeared, exactly as he first wrote it, in 1955. The working class has widely embraced the novel as an important text about their experience and written from their own point-of-view. It is not merely about the working-class experience – it also reflects on ways out of it.

The Tressell-like main character Owen is a Marxist, and tries to explain to his fellow house-painters how the system works, the Great Money Trick, and how to change this life-denying system. Never before in the English realist novel, had the actual labour process been central to the depiction of class struggle. For the first time, Tressell reverses the assumption that life begins where work ends – work is essential to fully lived human life. A character’s attitude to labour is a touchstone of his/ her humanity.

This novel is discussed at different points in the study, but not always in full recognition of its achievement. For example in Michael Pierse’s own chapter, he generalises to a degree that devalues the differentiated image of the working class presented by Tressell. Paul Delaney on the other hand goes into deeper analysis in his chapter on early 20th c working-class fiction.

In chapters on working-class writers from the North of Ireland, there are glaring exclusions of just such authors. For example, the chapter entitled ‘Poetry and the Working Class in Northern Ireland’ focuses almost exclusively on the not so working-class in subject matter: poets Heaney, Mahon and Longley. Such emphasis on the existing canon occurs in several chapters and in a way misses the point. There is no reference to Ciaran Carson, bilingual (Irish and English) son of a postal worker and highly regarded writer and translator of poetry in both languages. There are other omissions, including again the Irish language tradition, for example Gearóid Mac Lochlainn. Equally, the names of Northern working-class fiction writers do not appear in this book: Danny Morrison, poet Ciaran Carson’s novelist brother Brendan Carson, Sam McAughtry or Ian Cochrane. Nor, strikingly, Man Booker Prize winner Anna Burns’s novels. They are not even listed in the many lists of writers that appear (without much comment) throughout this book.

However, despite these shortcomings, A History of Irish Working-Class Writing is a very good starting point for anybody seeking to discover something about this vital tradition. It highlights the stature of Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan and other titans of Irish working-class literature. The authors have collected many names and writings of Irish working-class writers in Ireland, Britain, the US, Australia and New Zealand. For this reason alone, this book is an invaluable resource. Some of the better chapters discuss the literature they present in detail and analysis, making for more interesting reading.

rita ann higgins 2

Rita Ann Higgins

Two chapters that stand out for me in this respect are chapter 11 on ‘Solidarity and Struggle in Irish-American Working-Class Literature’ and chapter 14 on ‘Early 20th century Working-Class Fiction’ both of which look at their texts in terms of socialism and internationalism as well as offering more in-depth analyses. In other chapters, such engagement with the actual texts would have enriched them. For example, Heather Laird writing about working-class Irish women writers, comments about Rita Ann Higgins that she is one of the few female writers whose poems “feature female speakers with a strong grasp of the part state institutions play in consolidating the power dynamics that underpin the prevailing socio-economic and gender status quo”. After such a statement, the reader expects to be presented with the text and the evidence. Surely, one of the questions we have about working-class literature is not simply the setting but about in what way the writers’ understanding of their class within capitalist society is forged into an awareness of how to bring about a change to their lives.

This book proves that an independent archive of working-class writings must be set up to collect documents and manuscripts often deemed unworthy of publication by commercial publishers and unrecognised by mainstream academics. A great example for such an undertaking is The Working Class Movement Library, founded in Manchester by Ruth and Edmund Frow. Only in this way will important records of working-class lives, such as their autobiographies, but also their other writings be collected as the aesthetic statement of what the lives of so many were and are like.

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing is an academic publication. Priced at £79.99, it is ironically well beyond the means of the working class. However, despite its shortcomings, it is a valuable reference book. Everybody with an interest in working–class writings, as the voice of those who are marginalised and silenced in the writing of history, literary and art criticism, should ensure that their local library owns a copy for their readers.

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, CUP 2017, is available here

IWD 2019: Pioneers of Women's Emancipation in Ireland
Thursday, 07 March 2019 15:22

IWD 2019: Pioneers of Women's Emancipation in Ireland

Written by

To mark International Women's Day, Jenny Farrell reviews Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland, by Priscilla Metscher

Since times immemorial, people involved in the struggle for a better world have given expression to their aspiration not only in political texts and deeds, but also in artistic ways. These artistic expressions are not mere decoration, but an integral part of understanding and changing the world.

As explored in a previous article, the United Irishmen (and women) made extensive use of literary satire, and published songs in their political publications. Mary Ann McCracken wrote insightful, emancipatory letters to her imprisoned brother, Henry Joy. James Connolly took time out to write two plays and over twenty songs, poems and ballads. The play "Under Which Flag?" was first performed by the Workers' Dramatic Company in Liberty Hall three weeks before the Easter Rising (March 26, 1916). To quote the Irish suffragist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington who reviewed it:

It is a play of country life in Ireland at the time of the Fenian Rising... the dramatic conflict is fought around the person of Frank O'Donnell, a farmer's son, who in the first act announces his attention of joining the English Army, but at the end of the third act, having been shown the right path by his parents and sweetheart, and the old blind patriot Brian McMahon joins the fighting forces of the Irish Republican Brotherhood instead.

In the play, the farmer's wife Ellen replies to her eldest son Pat's intention to emigrate to America.

Far off hills are always green. Always slaving for other people, is it? And do you think you will get out of that by going to America? Faith then, you won't. The poor of the world are always slaving for other people, always going hungry that others may be fed, naked that others may be clothed, badly housed that others may live in palaces. 'Tis the way of the world in America as well as in Ireland.

In a short story discovered recently and attributed to Connolly, "The Agitator's Wife", another powerful woman character features at the heart of the piece. To quote Connolly: "No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression."

Priscilla Metscher’s study, Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland (Connolly Books, 2018) focuses on the political thinking, activities and lives of eminent Irish fighters for women’s emancipation, from a Marxist perspective. The author examines in turn Mary Ann McCracken, Anna Doyle Wheeler, William Thompson and James Connolly.

Mary Ann McCracken’s (1770-1866) emancipative ideas concerning the lot of women in her day are revealed in the correspondence with her brother Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen, while he was imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail. The goal of the United Irishmen was a separation from England and the setting up of a republic along the French model. Women were sworn into the Society and some actively participated in the ’98 Rising. Mary Ann McCracken is just one example of how mainstream historiography has neglected women’s contribution in shaping the outlook of their society. It is through her we can see that feminist ideas were gaining ground in Ireland in the late 18th century.

Next, Priscilla Metscher turns to two outstanding figures among the early socialists in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Anna Doyle Wheeler (1785-1848) and William Thompson (1775-1833). Both came from the Irish Ascendancy and had connections with leading socialists in Britain and France. Their ideas on the emancipation of women are expressed in their jointly authored Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, To Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, which was first published in 1825. This publication went further than the writings of the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft by creating a set of concepts regarding the mutual oppression of the sexes under social inequality. While Wollstonecraft had commented on the degradation endured by women, Wheeler makes practical proposals concerning the equal rights for all citizens.

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Anna Doyle Wheeler

Irish socialist James Connolly took a firm stand on the question of equal rights for women. He saw it as one of the prerequisites of a future socialist society in Ireland:

Of what use … can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish state be if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood.

Where necessary Connolly took direct action. When the Belfast textile manufacturers began to speed up production, Connolly, on request from the women workers, organised them as a textile branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

Within the socialist movement in Ireland and Britain, Connolly stands out as one of the few socialist leaders of the time who insisted that the economic and political emancipation of women must be an integral part of any socialist programme. As Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, editor of the suffragist newspaper the Irish Citizen stated:

Mr. James Connolly…is the soundest and most thorough-going feminist among all the Irish labour men.

This study outlines the thinking and actions of each individual considered in it. Implementing their beliefs put them to the forefront of the political movements of their times. Priscilla Metscher considers these pioneers within their times, showing what they achieved, or where their thinking fell short. In this sense, they were both ahead of their times and of their times. By reading about and understanding these pioneers of women’s emancipation, the relevance of their insights and activism becomes clear. Their lives and work are to be recognized, celebrated – and above all built on.

The booklet is published by Connolly Books and available from them for €7, see here.

'So now yir tellt!': the life and work of Alex Hamilton
Friday, 01 March 2019 09:39

'So now yir tellt!': the life and work of Alex Hamilton

Written by

David Betteridge discusses the life and work of Alex Hamilton, 1949-2018. It is a companion piece to Jim Aitken's essay-obituary of Tom Leonard.

I

This is not a proper obituary, although it started out as such. It is more a “thinking-through-writing” kind of thing, trying to wrestle a meaning out of some confusion. My subject is my friend of forty years, recently deceased, the prolific and talented and largely unpublished author, Alex Hamilton, aka Sandy Hamilton (to those who knew him from childhood), aka S&eh? (to those with whom he exchanged emails, who shared his love of puzzles), aka Alex. Hamilton (with a precise or pedantic dot after the first name, as he sometimes signed himself), aka Alexander P. Hamilton (as inscribed on the brass plate screwed to his coffin, which, following his own instructions, was lowered into the ground without a word being spoken), aka Django Ross or Cordelia d’Amfreville (pen-names that he adopted, the first mainly for works where he explored the punning possibilities of several languages, the second mainly for erotica).

As an author, Alex is remembered, if at all, for being one of the contributors to a handsome paperback collection of prose and verse published in 1976 by Molendinar Press, Three Glasgow Writers. The other two contributors were Tom Leonard and James Kelman, whose careers as authors, and later as professors of literature, rose and rose, while Alex’s flat-lined, then declined. I have been trying to understand why the two succeeded, by all measures, while the other, my friend, failed.

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Alex reading at the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, in 1976, at the launching - jointly with Tom Leonard and James Kelman - of Three Glasgow Writers, published by Molendinar Press. This still is taken from a video recording of the occasion, reproduced here by permission of the Contemporary Centre for Arts, Glasgow. (Ref. TE3/1976/117)

You can read Tom Leonard’s works and you can read works about him quite readily, whether in book form or online, as in Jim Aitken’s superb essay in Culture Matters, written a few weeks after Tom’s death, which came a few weeks after Alex’s. Even more readily, you can read James Kelman’s works and works about him, and you can go on reading them, as he is still alive, happily, and still producing noteworthy literature - witness his recent novel, Dirt Road. Alex’s works, by contrast, are hard to find, either because they were never published, or because they are tucked away in magazines e.g. Gutter, or are long out of print. It was not always so, however.

In 1981, three of us, Ian Murray, Adam Currie and myself, all friends of Alex’s, persuaded him to let us publish a selection of his short fiction, under our Ferret Press banner. With support from the Scottish Arts Council, this collection came out the following year, with the title Gallus, Did You Say? and Other Stories. In putting this selection together, we were able to draw on a pretty wide range of previously printed and/or broadcast outings. Ian Murray’s Introduction to Gallus lists some of these sources:

Alex. Hamilton was born in Glasgow in 1949 and still lives there, as he has done for most of his life. He is known best for the stories in this collection, which have been published and broadcast both in Britain and the United States. His work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including the Times Educational Supplement, Akros, and Transatlantic Review, and in the book Three Glasgow Writers (Molendinar Press, 1976). Some of his stories have been broadcast on BBC television and radio and Radio Clyde. The author’s reputation as a reader of his own work makes him a frequent visitor to schools and colleges, where he was invited to give over 20 readings last year, and he has read from his more adult fiction at the Kelso and Frayed Edge Festivals, the Third Eye Centre, and the University of Glasgow.

Alex. Hamilton was awarded Scottish Arts Council writer’s bursaries in 1974 and 1979.

II

What went wrong - if indeed it is fair to call failing to get published necessarily wrong - after the initial interest in his work? Part of the answer, it may be argued, was Alex’s retreat, after Gallus, from writing in a fluent and readable and refreshing mixture of vernaculars, with some Scottish Standard English spliced in whenever he judged that a character’s speech-style demanded it. Alex himself did not regard it as a retreat, but rather as an advance, a striking-out into new literary territories, with new language uses to suit. If readers did not see fit to advance with him, he reckoned that that was their loss. In an email sent to me in 2016, he wrote this, referring to himself, oddly, in the third person:

He's long since given up writing for the (etymologically & demotically) ignorant. He - I - write(s) for a player-audience of two. If you exit before I do, there'll be a player-audience of one. If I exit before you: "CURTAIN!".

First of all, post-Gallus, Alex began to experiment with very short texts in a most elegant style of English, almost Augustan. One such piece, I recall, was called “Abdul, the Tobacco Curer”. He duplicated and spiral-bound a few copies for giving to friends, and for submitting (unsuccessfully) to publishers. Its content was slight, I have to say. Then he went on to elaborate that style in other texts, playing with words at every twist and turn, and wangling in allusions, drawn from various sources, print and otherwise. Thereafter, other languages besides English were plundered and bent to the same purposes, including French, Greek, Latin, Russian, and especially Scots. An interest in typographical high jinks followed, and photo-montage. Joyce’s portmanteau coinages and Mallarme’s calligrams were among his inspirations. As the form that he used became increasingly witty, and increasingly condensed, to the point of extreme brevity, his content became decreasingly significant, I thought. Often, the whole point of a text was a single pun, or a paradox.

When we discussed his writing over too much beer, or, in later years, over coffee or wine, and I questioned the form-over-content imbalance, Alex replied that he had no interest in putting across messages of any kind. He would leave such sententious and tendentious stuff to those authors with axes to grind. He held especial scorn, for example, for Susan Sontag and such engaged essays of hers as Regarding the Pain of Others.

Once, he went so far as to say that he no longer held any belief in any grand narratives or big themes, his early commitment to Socialism and membership of the Labour Party having lapsed, as also his optimism regarding the possibility of any substantial social or political progress. Too many years working as a project manager on various EEC- and EU-sponsored public-private enterprises on brown-field sites - a job he entered after leaving the teaching profession - had tired him, and jaundiced him. He grew to distrust the political and business elites whom he was hired to serve, as also the popular and populist movements that gained support in the Nineties and Noughties across much of Europe.

Technological progress was a different matter: he embraced it happily, notably in connection with computing, hi-fi, and medicine; and for a while he engaged full-heartedly and doggedly in certain discrete issues that impinged on his life, as he listed in an email to me dated 2010:

Yup, sir: the enlightenment continueth. Wickedness encroacheth, or attempts to.

I've played my little part agin: the poll tax; the identity card scheme; the proposed closure of the FM network; & the environment on various fronts (& backs). 

Persistence. 

III

So that you can see and judge for yourselves, what I mean about Alex’s “retreat” - or his “advance” as he regarded it - let me juxtapose an early bit of text (published) against several later ones (unpublished):

From Our Merry (1976):

See, she had this wee kitten in her hands, and it was that toty you’d have thought it shouldn’t have been away from its mother....

“Heh, that sa a wee stoatir,” says Andy, and bends down to get a stroke at it.

“Lee it alane, you!” goes Merry, just as sudden as that, screaming and cuddling it real tight the way she does with her dolls. “Yir no tae touch it, awright? Awright? ... Kiz it’s mines!”

“Heh, wait a minnit, Merry,” I goes. “Whitdji mean, it’s yours? It’s probbli jiss ta stray ur that an that mean zit’s naebdi’s... relse if it sno a stray, it’s sumdi else’s.”

Compare the above with the following typical mini-text emailed to me in 2010. Note his copyrighting:

I think that I mentioned that I'm re-reading - and re-enjoying - Ellman's Joyce.

The attached occurred yestreen.

            PRODDY GÆL SUN

Anglophile Ἴκαρος was a dead loss to his patter.

                                               © DJANGO ROSS

Or this (2017):

As you know, I've been immersed in færie tales for the past couple of years, including Joseph's (translated) versions of a wheen of Celtic wans. Like you and Berger and the tellers of yore, my attitude is that a story's only a story, for if the hearers' interest wanes, you don't get your dram...

Currently reading thro - one per eve, of course - the latest (Penguin) translation of 1,001 Nights, which attempts to give all the stories, y compris the centuries' accretions. They haven't succeeded, but - kiz they hivnae nklewdit mines.

Which allows me to tell you of which, videlicet:

Sharazad's One Thousand and Second Tale

Woman, saith the Caliph. These three years, these thousand and one nights, thou hast succeeded in pleasing thy Lord. Thus, woman, I'm raisin thee to the status of my currant Sultana.

Or this, with graphics and a touch of colour, called The Retiree (2015):

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IV

The last time I saw Alex was at a screening of The Sense of an Ending at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Afterwards, he praised the film, and said even better things about Julian Barnes’s novel, of the same title, on which the film is based. I was surprised to hear Alex speak well of these two contemporary works, as he usually saved his plaudits for the past, notably for works from the eighteenth century. He especially liked Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he read and re-read several times over, in its complete six-volume edition; and, from the first half of the twentieth century, he especially liked James Joyce’s exuberant and encyclopedic two novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, complemented or contradicted by Samuel Beckett’s increasingly condensed late plays and novellas. Julian Barnes and the film-makers did well, I thought, to break into this company of merit.

Looking back, from after Alex’s death, I begin to see the deep relevance that The Sense of an Ending had for my friend, especially when considered in light of the essay in literary criticism, by Frank Kermode, that lay behind the novel and the film, that Alex knew from his student days.

I have a hunch that Alex consciously shaped the way he lived and worked during the last decades of his life, with especial urgency in the last few years, by when I suspect he was beginning to have intimations of mortality. He shaped it so that the resulting narrative would made sense to him, even though the wider world’s narrative did not. In so doing, he was exercising the same set of skills that Kermode reckoned a novelist exercised in writing fiction, and we exercise in reading it.

Alex’s narrative prompted him systematically to edit loose ends from his life, cutting them out abruptly if that proved the neatest thing to do. Friends and family alike got this treatment. What is more, he increasingly ordered his life along almost monastic lines, governed by a sort of home-made liturgy of the hours. He set aside time each day for reading, and for writing; for listening to BBC Radio 3; for walking to the library to consult the only journal he had any regard for, The Economist; and for calling in at a shop where he could buy past-their-date foodstuffs cheaply, including not-quite-stale bread. Twice a week, he walked to a branch of Tesco about a mile from his house, sometimes on the way to a free concert or lecture in the University or Art Galleries; there he bought items that were discounted. Once, I recall, when I met him there by chance, he pounced on a tin of sardines, at 39p. “This is enough,” he told me, “for three meals, with a bit of bread.”

When at last his doctor told him how little time remained to him, without fuss Alex engaged the services of a lawyer, and gave his final instructions. (I know about this from a phone conversation I had with Alex’s former wife, after the event; she in turn had learned the details from the lawyer.)

Alex wanted to be interred with no ceremony in a plot in the same graveyard as his parents. He wanted the money that he had saved from his frugal living to be spent on two things: the printing of a collection of his writings, the details of which I have not yet been able to discover, and the performance of a cello concerto, in memory of his father, who had been a skilled worker in the shipyards, as well as a skilled amateur cellist. (This concerto he had already commissioned, from Edward McGuire.)

Eddie was one of the last people to see Alex. He visited him a couple of times at his flat. This is how he describes their meetings:

I had not been in touch with him for a few months and thought it was time to update him on progress in my composing the cello concerto that he had commissioned the year before. So, on October 4th 2018, I brought him a bound copy of the draft version of the piece, and pointed out where music had to be completed in each of the 3 movements. I was able to say the soloist - Robert Irvine - was hoping to premiere it in the Spring of 2019. It was not until about 2 hours into our conversation that he told me about his terminal cancer diagnosis. So I said I'd keep in regular touch. My next and final visit was nearly 3 weeks later on October 24th, again at his flat. He was much weaker then but was optimistic about attending the concerto premiere in the Spring. So I was surprised to learn that he had died a week or two after that - I had planned a third visit in November. I hadn't heard about him going into the hospice.

There was one matter that took Alex and Eddie a while to agree on: how to phrase the concerto’s dedication. Alex did not want his own name to appear on the score, only his father’s and the composer’s. After some discussion, they agreed to add the words “Commissioned anonymously”. My own suggestion to Eddie was that, when he publishes the work, he changes the dedication to, “Commissioned anonymously by his son”. Why edit oneself out, and become a ghost? That is one of the questions about Alex that I am puzzling over.

V

Alex’s burial did not go the way his sense of an ending had prescribed. To start with, there were more people at the graveside than he wanted, ten in all, if you count the undertakers and the gravediggers, plus a Golden Labrador called Hector, who seemed to enjoy the outing, to judge from a photograph taken by an old school-friend, who decided to invite himself along. The dog is straining at his lead, eager to be off sniffing. The photograph also shows another eager soul, quite unmourning because of her young age, namely Alex’s infant grand-daughter, whom he never knew he had. There were also more words spoken in that country churchyard than Alex had bargained for, not at the moment of interment, but immediately afterwards, when half an hour of animated conversation burst out. Some of it sprang from the mourners’ pent-up anger or sadness or bewilderment at the way Alex had lived his life, and treated them; some of it sprang from shared memories, or from shared curiosity about the others.

While there was no ceremony or service or religious observation, there was one little gesture of traditional leave-taking from one of the ten. The old school-friend took a handful of soil from the box offered by the undertakers. He went to the grave’s edge, and threw it on top of the coffin with its bright new brass name-plate. He didn’t want to not do anything after all the years he had known Alex - or Sandy, as he called him - and enjoyed his company.

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Email attachment received from Alex in 2015

I have a sense of an ending of my own, different from Alex’s, and better than the one that actually happened. I have only belatedly arrived at it, some months after Alex’s grave was filled in, and the mourners went home, and the JCB mini-diggers that did the digging were taken to other jobs.

First, I would have been there at the graveside, along with many, many others - we should have invited ourselves. His old pals, James Kelman and Tom Leonard, would have been there, Tom Leonard restored to health, without any need of his walking-stick and a tube up his nose. Second, a cellist would have played the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite Number 3, just as a colleague of my sister’s had done at her funeral some years earlier. Alex was there, and expressed great pleasure at hearing that noble music. Third, a jazz guitarist would have played another piece of music that Alex liked, Django Reinhardt's Nuages. When he was young, Alex played the guitar quite well, and till the end kept his instrument out of its case in his living room; but latterly he was unable even to hold it properly, let alone play it, as a disabling disease turned first one hand, then the other, into crab-like claws. Django famously lacked the use of two fingers, after being burned in a fire; Alex lacked the use of any. Fourth, every one of us there would have thrown our handful of earth into the grave, and either recited something or sung something, con brio. Fifth, we would all have gone to a pub somewhere afterwards, and held a riotous wake. Sixth, every one of us would have received a fat package through the post a few weeks later, from Alex’s lawyer. In it would have been a volume of Alex’s best writing, handsomely printed, and a CD of Eddie McGuire’s Cello Concerto. Seventh, we would have learned that we had been misinformed, and that Alex’s life never had taken a wrong turning.

This is me writing fiction, of a consoling kind.

VI

Looking back, summing up, it is clear that Alex was for a while a significant figure in an informal movement combining authors and publishers and broadcasters and readers and teachers, especially secondary school teachers such as Alex himself was at that time. Collectively, they shifted the centre of gravity of Scottish Literature further towards the vernacular, or vernaculars (plural) rather. Others continued that movement, with increasing success, while Alex chose to follow his other path, pursuing other projects. Tom Leonard and James Kelman, his former book-mates in the Molendinar Press volume, went on to become international faces and voices of the movement, each in his own distinctive way, and many others joined them, one of my favourites being Anne Donovan. Her story Hieroglyphics (2001) says a lot about vernacular and standard forms of a language, and says it in a vernacular so precise that it is an idiolect. Reading it sheds light on Alex’s early work.

The story describes a child’s struggles to decipher print, coming to Standard English texts from a Glasgow vernacular starting place. One word that gives her especial difficulty is her own forename: MARY. “That's ma name. Merry. But that wus spelt different fae merry christmas that you wrote in the cards you made oot a folded up bits a cardboard an yon glittery stuff that comes in thae wee tubes...” Here we find a lovely echo of lines written by Alex a generation earlier.

He similarly transliterated that girl’s forename as “Merry”, in his own story “Our Merry”, from Three Glasgow Writers.  I remember querying Alex’s use of “Our” in his title, at the time we were getting Gallus ready for the press. I asked him if “Oor” was not the form he needed. Quickly and correctly, he pounced on my levelling, flattening, ignorant tin-ear. “It might be ‘Oor Wullie’,” he said, referring to D.C. Thompson’s cartoon character, “but in the North part of Glasgow, where my character comes from, and where I come from, it’s just as I wrote it: ‘Our Merry’.” There we see the same precision that made him place a dot after his own forename. “Alex. is an abbreviation,” he insisted. “It’s an abbreviation of Alexander, cutting the word short; hence the dot. So now yir tellt!”

VII

It would be a mistake for me to try to draw too large a conclusion about literary careers from considering Alex’s particular example. There is no compelling reason why writers should confine themselves to using vernaculars, there being plenty of good poems, short stories, novels, plays, etc. written in varieties of Standard English. There is no compelling reason, either, why they should desist from word-play and allusion and experimentation with layouts and fonts. If overly “realist” and “anti-formalist” assumptions were allowed to govern which works are deemed good, and therefore published, and which are deemed not good, and therefore not published, literature would be impoverished. Had such criteria been applied in the past, we would have lost access to a great deal of Hugh MacDiarmid’s polymath and polyglot output, to take one mighty example.

Other writers, too, would have remained in a limbo of unpublishability. Scotland’s first modern Makar, Edwin Morgan, would have suffered; or, at least, his concrete poetry inventions would have failed to make it into print. Similarly, some of Alastair Gray’s most typographically adventurous pages. And where would Hope Mirrlees’ s Paris be?

My comradely disagreement with Alex about the later direction of his writing did not relate to its form, considered on its own, nor to the demands it makes on us as readers to raise our game, but to its diminution of content. That is to say, my disagreement related to his conscious avoidance of engagement with the world, and the peoples in it, and their unavoidable concerns with big issues. In fact, I enjoyed Alex’s textual extravaganzas, as did a friend in London, the composer and poet David Johnson, to whom I showed some of Alex’s later work. “It is the sort of experimentation that excites by sound and rhythm more than sense,” he wrote, “as if he was writing in a language invented on the spot, or from a sort of speaking in tongues. Is it visionary? Mad? These questions alone spark an interest in me...” No, I just wanted Alex’s adventures in form to serve something bigger; and so, I suppose, did all those publishers who so often sent him rejection slips, or plain ignored his submissions.

Ernst Fischer considered this diminution of content phenomenon, across all the arts in his far-ranging study, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach. He saw it as a problem intrinsic to late capitalism, affecting creative individuals who were, or who became, detached from the realities of society, or indeed from their own true natures; in other words, as in Marx’s classic definition, individuals who were alienated. Fischer wrote:

The de-socialisation of art and literature produces the recurring motif of flight: the motif of deserting a society which is felt to be catastrophic.....

Alex’s flight became the dominating feature of his life and his work alike. How I wish he had chosen - had been willing and able to choose - to stay in touch with more things, more people, more issues, while still playing as he wished with form and language. How I wish he could have made Joan Miro’s manifesto-motto his own. In a 1948 interview, Miro, speaking of his own work, said, “Plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump up in the air.”

Suddenly, having pursued my argument thus far, I am aware of a certain rather large anomaly, namely a work-in-progress of Alex’s called The Reinhardt Variations, which I have only just remembered. It recounts the tale of a young technocrat’s journeys across several nations of Eastern Europe. Here, Alex avoided the form-over-content imbalance. He rendered chunks of real life, experienced at first hand, taken from a time and from places undergoing epochal change. Sure, the language may have been difficult in places, compressed, over-written perhaps, full of parodies of different kinds of writing, from newspaper journalism, to company report, to political polemic, to letter, to diary entry; but it was about something significant. Unfortunately, he never finished the novel, or even, latterly, spoke of it. It sank. I am left wondering if anything of it survives, maybe on a memory-stick or disk. I hope so, as it would show that Alex’s “retreat” (or “advance”) in his writing was not in a straight line, not 100 percent consistent. 

VIII

There was a conference on brownfield site development in Moscow some years before Alex retired, that he attended. He was called to speak about his own work on such projects, being at the time employed by the European Commission in a variety of countries. He prefaced his remarks by quoting, in Russian, the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same holds true, he told his fellow-attendees, even more so, of countries. As his life wore on, and the world’s politics got ever more dysfunctional, as it seemed to him, and as his own affairs went the same way, he became an expert in unhappiness; but it was his genius to carry on nonetheless, to hold fast, with a wry smile on his haggard face, and a bon mot forming in his mind, to be saved in his computer file.

Although, as I have shown, he favoured playfulness over seriousness in his writing, and in his public persona, I sensed a deep seriousness inside him, that darkened and hardened and shrank as the years went by, ending up as a nihilism similar to - and maybe even modelled on - Samuel Beckett’s, but without the Irishman’s great concern for the “still, sad music of humanity”, achieved through plain speech beautifully handled. A passage in Beckett’s Molloy expresses this nihilism perfectly. Alex read the novel both in its original French and in its later English translation, and sometimes quoted from it:

All I know is what the words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, a middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead. And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing...

Clearly it did matter, however, at least some of the time. Alex’s dying instruction to his lawyer to arrange for a selection of his writings to be published was proof of that.

IX

There is much more that I could say about Alex’s life, and the way he chose to live it and to end it, yoking on as he did of a sort of Stoicism, if that is not too grand a term for his self-directedness, and his matter-of-fact acceptance of all the losses he suffered, and in some cases brought on himself; or should he be termed a Cynic, rather; or just a plain old misanthropic bastard? Maybe I have already said too much, divulging private matters about my friend. My intention is not to speak ill of him, but to recognise and try to understand his pursuance of his chosen craft, and to mourn the things that went wrong.

I am left with the questions I started with. The biggest one is this: how could a man who knew so much about other people’s lives choose so narrow and austere a narrative for himself? Here was a man who was deeply read in such deep studies of life as King Lear - to the extent that he sometimes adopted the mad king’s estranged and then reconciled daughter’s name, Cordelia, as a pen-name - and yet, looking back with selective fondness to his long-dead father, he chose to elevate his role as a son over all his other dealings with people, including his own daughters? And how could he lavish so much care on his complex weaving of witticisms and word-play - much ado about little - while neglecting so much else? It was as if, to reverse the idea contained in a line spoken by Cordelia in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Alex wanted his epitaph to be: “My tongue's more richer than my love.”

Ernst Fischer’s analysis of the de-socialisation of literature puts Alex in his historical context, but I am still left wondering why. Why, in this particular case, yet not in others, do we see a recurrence of Fischer’s motif of flight? To take two obvious counter-examples, Tom Leonard and James Kelman, both of whom came from similar class origins to Alex’s, and pursued similar destinations: they signally stayed grounded, never ballooning away into the least hint of alienation. Why the difference? Clearly, there is no simple iron law or hidden societal hand requiring de-socialising and flight. There must be other factors at work also.

Reading a life is the hardest thing.

X

While struggling to put this piece together, I found that a verse-elegy began to form in my mind. It went through about a dozen drafts, before the following text emerged. Alex would have thoroughly disapproved both of its form and of its content.

Dead Letters

by David Betteridge

Friend, I let you down;
and you let me go.
In doing so, you let me down;
and we let the silence that ensued
between us grow and grow.
We both were wrong,
needing as we did -
and still do - the other there,
in touch, if not in step or tune,
aware.

Disuse, the destroyer,
eroded friendship’s base;
and then, not telling anyone,
you went to a private place,
and straightway died;
you died with unanswered letters
left, and no good-byes.
I am not the only one estranged.
Year on year, you cut adrift
alike your family and your friends,
you hurting man.

Young, you kept your ear
close to the People’s complex voice;
you wrote their lives;
and your voice was heard.
Then, by cold degrees,
you privileged your own small take
and slant on things,
and your own sharp wit.
These led you to your solitude,
and turned the key on it.

Too soon you settled
into garret-ways, ensconced
in the clean order of your top-floor flat,
with the storm-doors shut.

Sitting there,
you pleasured in thesauruses,
and in the alphabet.
You had software that provided
every font of every type.
You wove them closely
into ever-dwindling texts,
with an ever-dwindling sense of right.

Your favourite letter
of the twenty-six was “O”.
You wrote the “O” that gives expression
to surprise; the “O” of salutation, too;
and the “O” of moans and groans,
extending once, in a tale of yours,
to twenty pages, then in colours
fifty more, some garish red, some blue.
You wrote the Venn diagram’s encircling “O”,
that separates one thing from the rest,
including (and excluding) self;
also the “O” that signifies an open wound,
or eye, or grave; and, finally, the “O”
that is the empty “O” of nothing, of which
no thing will come, as Lear observed;
and so it proved,
as your life’s course attests.

You found delight in Joyce,
striving to out-fun in print
that magic-making Irishman.
Now and then, in miniscule,
you ran him close,
but quite forgot to keep
your soul and heart engaged,
as he did his, and your feet
earth-pressed, like Antaeus.

Words, old friend, lost friend:
they were your true companions.
You kept faith with them,
cherishing them till death,
punning cleverly all the way
to the grave full-stop of your last breath.

Why did you not keep faith
with more?

Why did you turn
from the prime substantial world?
Why did you favour emptied signs
and metaphors?

Too late now to redraft
your life’s plot,
to redirect the great talent
that you had,
that it might serve a better end!
What’s done is done.
We must let it be.

Oh, that you’d kept in touch
with wider themes,
and with wiser friends than me!

Further reading: Caroline McAfee’s contribution, called “Glasgow”, which is part of Varieties of English Around the World, published by John Benjamins, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1983, available online. It contains extracts from Alex’s short stories, and from an early novel, Stretch Marks.

 

A common treasury for all: Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers
Wednesday, 23 January 2019 20:44

A common treasury for all: Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers

Written by

John Storey tells the story of the 33 Digger communities, intended by Gerrard Winstanley as a first step in a revolution to change not just England but the world. Dug into the text is a poem by Fran Lock in memory of Winstanley, taken from Ruses and Fuses.

On Sunday 1 April 1649 a group of between twenty and thirty poor men and women began to dig the earth on St George’s Hill in Surrey. According to a government spy, ‘They invite all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink and clothes. . . . They give out, they will be four or five thousand within ten days. . . . It is feared they have some design in hand’.

The Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, did have a design in hand. As Winstanley expressed it, ‘To dig up George Hill . . . we may work in righteousness and lay the foundations of making the earth a common treasury for all, both rich and poor. . . . Not enclosing any part into a particular hand, but all as one man, working together, and feeding together; . . . not one lording over another, but all looking upon each other, as equals’. Moreover, ‘every single man, male and female’ should have equal access to what is a ‘common store-house for all’.

What Winstanley envisaged was a movement from private to communal ownership. At first the two systems would co-exist, but increasingly, with the withdrawal of hired labour, the privately owned estates would cease to be viable and the communal system would prevail. As he explained,

No man can be rich, but he must be rich either by his own labours, or by the labours of other men helping him. If a man have no help from his neighbour, he shall never gather an estate of hundreds and thousands a year. If other men help him to work, then are those riches . . . the fruit of other men’s labours as well as his own.

Winstanley knew very well that ‘all rich men live at ease, feeding and clothing themselves by the labours of other men, not by their own; which is their shame, not their nobility’. And when the rich give charity, as if this justified oppression and exploitation, ‘they give away other men’s labours, not their own’. Without the labour of others, the rich would have to work the land themselves and it would become impossible for them to continue to maintain their large estates. In such circumstances, he argued, the rich would join the poor in the communal cultivation of the land. The result would be the end of private property, buying and selling, alienated labour, and the political authority which helped produce and reproduce all three.

In other words, Winstanley’s revolution does not propose to take land from the rich, but to deny to them the means to cultivate it. If the poor work together to produce for themselves, the rich will have no labour to hire and exploit. As he explains, ‘None can say, their right is taken from them; for let the rich work alone by themselves and let the poor work together by themselves; the rich in their enclosures, saying this is mine; the poor upon their commons, saying this is ours, the earth and fruits are common’. What is taken from the rich is the capacity to exploit the labour of others. If they want lots of land, let them work it by themselves. When this proves impossible, they will have to join with the new community of common ownership.

The refusal to work for the rich, and the inability of the rich to work the land themselves, would bring about the downfall of private property and class difference. The proposed mass withdrawal of labour from working the land for wages was in effect a general strike. What made it more sustainable than most general strikes, was that working for wages was being replaced by working as a community to support each other. In other words, the withdrawal of labour would produce an alternative economic and social system. Not giving hire nor taking hire would deny to the landowners the workers they needed to cultivate their estates.

Diggers 3

The result would be that ‘No man shall have any more land than he can labour himself, or have others to labour with him in love, working together, and eating bread together . . . neither giving hire, nor taking hire’. Without workers to exploit and oppress they would have to work the land themselves. Without hired labour the large landowner would have to reduce his property to a size he could work with just family and friends. As Winstanley puts it, ‘if the rich will still hold fast this propriety of mine and thine, let them labour their own land with their own hands’. But if the rich for some reason cannot labour, providing they give up their land they will be welcomed into the community.

As he further explains, ‘He that is now a possessor of lands and riches, and cannot labour, if he say . . . take my land only let me eat bread with you, that man shall be preserved by the labours of others’. Making the additional point, in a gesture that would never be reciprocated, ‘And if any of you that are the great ones of the earth, that have been bred tenderly, and cannot work, do bring in your stock into this common treasury as an offering to the work of Righteousness; we will work for you, and you shall receive as we receive’.

The brutality of the opposition the Diggers encountered was driven by the threat they posed to the system of property ownership. It quickly became clear that the Diggers represented something new; they were not squatting in the hope that local landowners would take pity on them and allow them to stay; rather, they were challenging the very idea of land ownership.

The attack on the Diggers included an economic boycott, harassment, violent assaults by hired thugs, and legal actions. It was all organised by local landowners. They even employed a clergyman, whose sole purpose was ‘to preach down the Diggers’. The men of property were determined to prevent the Diggers establishing themselves on the commons and the example this would set. When the Diggers moved their activities to Cobham Heath in August 1649, the opposition intensified, continuing what had gone before, but now burning dwellings and furniture, and hiring thugs to chase the Diggers from the area.

turning earth

by Fran Lock

i.m Gerrard Winstanley

god holds us all in the hollow of his hand, costing
our melt-weight. from boy to man. stripling into
ingot. i see it now, we are more precious, we are
not less base. our swords, they are not morphing
into ploughshares, and every cutting blade insists
upon its own utopian intercourse. god is not found,
but made. these yeomen, apprentice lads. oh, we
have smithied his kingdom, reckoned it level with
hot, dull force. they call this treason. we’d turn
the stifled earth and let it breathe. the ground, not
broke, but opened after all. god holds us close.
they only see what we tear down. but god will
know, will know us for waywardens of the soil.
the soul. brothers, i dream of a spring without
omission, rising blue and green from winter’s
cryptic jinx. sisters, i dream of a spring without
remission; a love that shrugs the slog of mongrel
toil. god holds, god knows. man is not made
for minting open mouths. man is not made for
driving stakes into the frozen ground. they skim
the fat, we till a trough of stones. man should
be held, man should be known by what he
grows: the shoot, the word, the human good.
we planted christ. came capsized and aspiring,
sweated our tenure in stockades, and stung
into hunger, ate grass. we planted christ. not
christ as a bright dividing line, but christ, an
immovable root that binds the chalky earth
together. crisis ripens a fist like a snail in beer.
we rage and are imperfect, yet we know, we
are vouchsafed, and all are saved. for it is hope
that we make grow.

Winstanley remained convinced that ‘you lords of manors . . .have none to stand for you but whom you force by threatening’. Men pulled down the houses out of fear of what might happen to them and their families if they refused. As Winstanley explains, ‘one soldier . . . forced . . . three country men to help him pull down . . . [a] house; . . . the men were unwilling to pull it down; but for fear of their landlords, and the threatening soldier, they did but their hands to pull it down’. And when the houses were burned, tools and crops destroyed, ‘their lords gave them ten shillings to drink, and they smiled one unto another; being fearful, like a dog that is kept in awe, when his master gives him a bone, and stands over him with a whip; he will eat, and look up, and twinch his tail; for they durst not laugh out, lest their lords should hear they jeered them openly; for in their hearts they are Diggers’.

The final attack on Cobham Heath occurred on 19 April 1650. The hired thugs violently attacked men, women and children. One woman was so badly beaten that she later miscarried. Houses were burned down, crops destroyed and the Diggers forcibly dispersed. More hired thugs were paid to occupy the site to prevent their return. Local inhabitants were warned not to provide lodgings for or food to the Diggers. They had been defeated by the organised power of the local landowners: they brought the court case; they paid for the clerical attack; they hired the thugs to violently confront the Diggers and to break up their tools and destroyed their dwellings and to eventually drive them from their work on the land.

The digging on St George’s Hill, Cobham Heath and in the other 32 Digger communities was intended as a first step in a revolution to change not just England but the world. Winstanley refers to ‘our work of the earth’s community’. He also says, ‘And not only this common, or heath should be taken in and manured by the people, but all the commons and waste ground in England, and in the whole world, shall be taken in by the people in righteousness, not owning any propriety; but taking the earth to be a common treasury, as it was first made for all’.

He also knew ‘that the earth was made to be a common treasury of livelihood for all, without respect of persons, and was not made to be bought and sold . . . [and] none ought to be lords and landlords over another, but the earth is free for every son and daughter of mankind, to live free upon’. When he talked about the world being turned upside down, he really did mean the world and all who inhabit it.

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