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Posts from the ‘Politics’ Category

20
Oct

Column A or Column B?

Aware
Committed
Creative
Honest
Improvising
Incisive
Independent
Initiating
Innovating
Insightful
Leading
Strategic
Supportive ———————————- >

or

Obedient

If you were planning a trillion-pound, sixteen-year indoctrination program to turn out the next generation of our society, which column would you build it around?

The present school system is built on fear. Fear of exams. Fear of Ofsted. Fear of failure.

All this fear can only output blank generations capable of being obedient.

Yet the world has changed since the modern school was conceived in an industrial Britain. Then the economy needed homogenised, obedient workers and pliant, eager consumers. Today the mass-customisable planet demands innovation.

Education policy must, then, topple Column B. Only then can students be free from the fear of failure.

20
Oct

Jean de…Mordovia?

Gerard Depardieu lumbered around the stage of a provincial Russian town, brandishing his new Russian passport, before being bundled into a traditional regional smock. Hours earlier, he had dined with President Putin. Russia was embracing an exile, driven to their country by punitive state legislation. Or so they would like to have us believe. The arrival of Depardieu was undoubtedly a coup for the government, a sign of the new appeal of Russia to those disillusioned with the West, a sign of their legitimacy as a world power. Eighty years earlier, a series of Western intellectuals had come to fete the Soviet Union and engender it with a similar validity. Yet the gulf between the visits is more than simply chronological. The “fellow-travellers” saw the USSR as an attempt to create a new civilisation; Depardieu and the modern celebrities who fawn on dictators around the world see low taxes and the loosening of an oligarch’s purse-strings.

The collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s was heralded as a triumph of democracy, free markets and free elections liberating the long-suffering people. In reality, the chaotic nature of the decade led to many countries returning to more authoritarian leadership, or merely retaining Soviet-era apparatchiks in power. They invariably became incredibly wealthy and ran corrupt and abusive states. The Turkmen leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, renamed himself Turkmenbashi, Father of the Turkmen, and became known for his personality cult – he had a gold-plated statue of himself erected in the capital, Ashgabat. It revolved to always face the sun.

If Turkmenbashi was the apotheosis of venal Central Asian dictatorship, he set an example for others. Islam Kamirov has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, becoming notorious for a series of alleged human rights abuses, as has Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord who ascended to the presidency from the ruin of the wars there. Kamirov and Kadyrov, as well as the Putin-Medvedev duumvirate, have played host to a number of American and European celebrities, often singers performing at exclusive concerts. Their defence when questioned about the allegations against their patrons is often ignorance, a sense that politics interferes with artistic freedom, and therefore can be overlooked. The irony of citing such rights to perform as an excuse for appeasing governments such as Putin’s is evident in the aftermath of the Pussy Riot case. However, the artists represent a new global citizenry, an elite whose fame has transcended national boundaries, and are therefore free to do the same. The supranational nature of football is an example: the Dagestani club Anzhi Makhachkala has persuaded world-class players to join them, despite their location in a volatile region of the country that requires the players to make a thousand mile commute from Moscow to play, through the wealth of a local oligarch.

It is now far simpler for wealthy individuals to choose their nationality and residence. However, the contrast between this and the intellectuals who pledged their support to Stalin’s Soviet Union is noticeable. Authors may have been flattered – their books were placed in libraries and scholars discussed them in public – but this was merely securing the bargain. Those who lent their support to the USSR saw it as the future, a new civilization in the process of attaining enlightenment and perfection. They invested a secular faith into the project; modern fellow travellers are more likely to pay lip service to an individual for their personal gain. Apologies are forthcoming when their actions are noticed – Hilary Swank donated her fee to charity after appearing in Chechnya for Kadyrov’s birthday – but the motivation is plainly financial. Russia has a flat income tax rate of just 13%, and Depardieu moved there shortly after President Hollande announced a new 75% top rate for France. Many also seek the privacy of a new nationality, away from prying media attention.

Moreover, the status of those who are able to transform their national identity, and move freely, is notable. If one has sufficient wealth, it is possible. If not, one is stranded, no matter their need. When the Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky claimed political asylum in Britain, there was no detention centre and debate over status. He was accommodated, his wealth and position overriding any concerns. For your average asylum seeker, the flight for their lives could hardly be different. A two-speed system has been created, whereby national borders are erased to ease the lives of the wealthy, whilst limiting the opportunities of the global poor. Russia’s tax rate benefits only a tiny minority of the population; Depardieu’s citizenship lends needed credibility to Vladimir Putin’s regime. Either way, as in the 1930s, we all suffer from the transcendence of social norms by a global elite.

20
Oct

Revolution

Is fear an aid or hindrance to radical political change? Josh Allen surveys the evidence.

Few subjects are supposed to provoke more fear in the hearts of the ruling class than the spectre of radical change wrought through revolution. However need this be so?

The premier revolution of the modern era occurred in the Russian Empire in late 1917 – an event  which in turn shaped much of the 20th century. And yet, after the initial spasms, did much really change internally within Russia? Need the bourgeois have trembled?

The first decade of the USSR’s existence was a game of 2 halves. First came fear engendered by the Civil War. Then in more settled circumstances, came the creativity that characterised mid-’20s Russia, giving us constructivism, method acting and cut-up film-making. All within an atmosphere that was punk 50 years before The Pistols.

After this creative interregnum however, returned an intensification of fear, as the advent of Stalin’s leadership instigated a climate of terror: the NKVD, GULAG and show trial, all came to sustain and legitimate the regime-lubricating the wheels of industrialisation with blood. Was this fear and tightening of the state’s grip really a logical stage in the evolution of the revolution or a counter-revolution?

On the social front, the draconian Stalinist legal code re-criminalised homosexuality, abortion and divorce. In the class room, the regime returned Russian educational praxis to a version of the traditional tsarist model. The virtual ban on changing job, place of employment or residence meant that serfdom was back in style, only this time with no hope of “redemption” after paying an additional tax for 25 or 30 years.

By the close of the 1930s the official ideology of state with its iconographic portraits of striving workers, buxom women and fetishisation of electricity and tractors as symbols of modernity appeared to have restored orthodoxy. The entire Soviet people toiled for their red tsar under the benevolent gaze of the holy trinity: Marx, Lenin, Stalin. The father, the son and the omnipresent holy ghost. Order had returned to the Russian Empire.

Switching our focus from the tundra to Tuscany in the late 1370s, and fear is sweeping through the oligarchic mercantile elites of Europe. In Florence, the Manchester or Shenzhen of the 14th Century, members of the minor craft guilds not recognised by the municipality seized control of the guildhall and raised their banners over the means of production, distribution and exchange. They proceeded to nationalise the grain industry, raise welfare benefits by 300% and to abolish all personal titles other than “citizen”. By the middle of 1382 however, all of their changes had been rolled back.

Following the seizure of power, the leaders of the minor guilds – like Stalin and his supine cadres 550 years later – found it both expedient to maintain and indeed reinforce some of the traditions of the old magnate class. Coming to power during an economic slump is never easy, however the government of the minor guilds compounded this problem by trying to meet the debt obligations of the previous regime and instituting draconian punishments for those who did not work. The lesser artisans of Florence were left wondering what had changed, so did not ride to their nominal representatives rescue when in 1382 the Butcher’s Guild, loyal to the old regime, seized the guildhall and massacred most members of the revolutionary government, securing the rapid restoration of the old regime and in time, the emergence of the Medici family as a bulwark against future disorder and challenges to the status quo.

The fear amongst radicals that revolutionary change might prove short-lived is frequently addressed as a topic of concern in radical left-wing circles. However, it also concerns those on the right. Marx famously wrote of Napoleon the III’s destruction of the Second Republic in 1852, ‘history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce’. He was referring to the grotesque parody of the First Empire’s (brief) achievements reflected in the ineffective and ill-thought out vanity projects and serious dubious plebiscites, focus groups and assemblies, that compromised Louis Napoleon’s ever more tenuous grip upon both France and reality.

However, the same applies to the incredibly mediocre performance that was Thatcherite Britain. The Conservative Party’s mid-1970s conversion to to neo-liberal economics gave it a revolutionary agenda just as radical as that of Militant Tendency. Despite the best efforts of Keith Joseph to brand Thatcherism ‘neo-victorianism’, since that time there has been nothing conservative about the Conservative Party.

The appalling social effects of social, political and economic Thatcherism and the corrosive effect of life in a neo-liberal world upon individuals and their relationships with each other, are well-known, well-documented and well-lamented amongst left-wingers. What is considered less often is whether the Thatcherite revolution fundamentally changed anything. Or, in fact, whether British Thatcherism and the neo-liberal movement worldwide is merely an intensification and perfection of existing trends. Much as tsarist orthodoxy found its highest expression under the supposedly atheistic and socialistic Stalinist USSR.

Thatcher and her political fear she inculcated led to the waste, inefficiency and eventual collapse of state industries. However, let us consider three of Britain’s most successful companies: Serco, First Group and – before their collapse in 2002 – Jarvis Construction. All 3 have grown through extensive state support, which has enabled them to thrive. Serco and other outsourcing companies have come into existence solely because of government policies which favour private delivery of services, create a market, which has now gone global that did not exist before.

It’s hard to see how successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, have acted differently from their predecessors of the immediate Post-War era, who tried to encourage growth in the car or chemical industries. Likewise First Group’s business model, as we have seen in York, relies almost entirely upon exploiting state subsidies and extracting the maximum profit for the least return to service users. A model, so successful, that recent acquisitions have exported it as far as Australia and the USA. Jarvis Construction, prior to overreaching itself, made a killing from rail privatisation and public sector building contracts worldwide.

How does the policy of recent governments differ then from those prior to the late ’70s? Whereas once the government championed British Aerospace, the General Electric Corporation and the British Motor Company, firms which provided skilled, reasonably secure well paid jobs in good conditions for hundreds of thousands, now they encourage and subsidise service providers which seem to profit from the general atomisation of our population and society, under the white heat of capital.

Conservatives and indeed liberals should fear the pace of change that they have unleashed, because it is, by its very nature, destabilising. It is in this whirlwind that those of us who seek to challenge the status quo might be able to seek lasting change without falling into the mires that have ensnared radicals in the past. The essence of driving effective change must be to seek out organic variant of the change we want and encourage them to blossom.

At grassroots level we should seek to build through our students’ unions or our local authorities the sort of better world we want to see – be this through start our own letting agency to challenge ineffective privately run ones or getting the parish council to collectively buy energy for our town or village, so as to reduce bills for all. Such small acts are not a plea for introspective quietism, rather an assessment that if a revolutionary situation materialises then we shall be better placed to capitalise upon it if society already has the buds of a free and equal society.