Audio essay

royaume-uni

“A tale of two countries” is the title of an audio essay I’ve put together for an exhibition opening today Up North in an abandoned boozer. It’s a rough attempt to try to put across some feelings and ideas about the political and social mood at the moment.

The exhibition, “Will the last person to leave the 20th century please turn out the lights?”, is a journey into the West Yorkshire eerie, bringing together drawings, installations and audio. If you happen to be bowling by Baildon, between Bradford and Otley, it opens today. More info here.

If not, have a listen here.

Thanks goes to John Ledger for inviting me to produce something and for bringing it together.

State of the nation

‘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.’ – Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks.

There are signs that the interregnum may soon be over. An election result few of us dared hope for, a new collective desire not simply hoping but demanding an end to austerity.

Young, not so young and old are coming together, across regions, suburbs and inner-cities, saying enough is enough. No more lies, no more futile elections, no more strong and stable. We don’t want much. An end to debt, an end to uncertainty at work, jobs we want to do, an affordable place to live, teachers for our schools, nurses and carers for when we’re ill, libraries, children’s centres, pubs and local halls re-opened where our communities can come together, a world to pass on to future generations. No more people homeless when luxury apartments go empty, no more food banks, bedroom taxes, benefits sanctions, young minds going to seed in dead-end jobs, no children growing up hungry. A new social contract.

I’ve never been in the practice of fortune-telling, but I’m inspired by these new energies.

I’m speaking at two events this Friday in London, both open to the public, where I’ll explore this new terrain. There’s a great line-up at both and it would be wonderful to be joined by friends.

State of the Nation at Waterstones Piccadilly, 7pm-8.30pm: an evening of readings with novelists and poets including Amanda Craig, Jason Donald, John McCullough and Sarah Moss. £5 entry but includes wine.

Post-Capitalist Desire at the George, Commercial Road, E1 0LA, 9pm-3am (flyer above): a night of interventions, projections, K-punk mixtapes, DJ sets and yuppiedrome occupations (!) brought together by the Savage Messiah collective.

This night looks special, the first in hopefully a series to explore what the late, dearly-missed Mark Fisher touched on in his later writings, ‘acid communism – the spectre of a world that could be free’.

Wish me well for the Owell Prize announcement this Thursday, and looking forward to the conversations and events of the long summer ahead.

 

 

OECD Forum 2017

This week I spoke at the OECD Forum 2017 in Paris about the geographies of discontent, and about my book Island Story.

It was such an unexpected honour to be invited, and the conversations I had over those two days were inspiring, difficult, revelatory and valuable. Find out more about the event and the other speakers here.

Much of it was recorded. Here’s an interview where I discuss Britain’s many island stories, and the next book project…

And a longer panel discussion where I discuss pride, collectivity, distinguishing between cultural and economic factors behind Brexit, and the fascinating case of Cornwall. The other panellists were brilliant, and if you have a moment take a listen to the discussion about trade unions in the US, retraining workers in Denmark, and the valuable work we can all do within our communities:

It was excellent! There’s more photos here and here, and you can join in the conversation after by signing up here.

Orwell Prize Long-list

Island Story has been long-listed for the Orwell Prize for political writing.

It has sneakily gatecrashed into an impressive party. Many thanks to everyone who has enjoyed the book and supported it. Read more about the long-list here.

In tandem, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is being read aloud in its entirety at the Ministry of Truth on 6th June by actors, journalists, and other miscellaneous sorts like myself.

I’m also teaching these over the coming months:

  • For the IF Project’s ‘Thinking Without Borders’ course, I’m lecturing on ‘Power to the People? Populism, Freedom and Self-determination’ on 27th April. IF is a free university in East London, and the free evening course runs bi-weekly from April to July.
  • I’m also giving a 12-week course on ‘The Meanings of Life’ at the Mary Ward Centre, an adult education institute in Holborn, with a good social ethos and low concessions. This beginners’ philosophy class covers Aquinas, Montaigne, Spinoza, Kant, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Bataille, Kafka, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Arendt, and more if I can fit it in (yes!)

Brexit on a bicycle

ns-cover

My article on cycling around the North of England in the aftermath of Brexit has been published this week in the New Statesman.

Based on conversations during my book tour of Island Story, I set out to explain why many working class people voted Brexit. The horizons of political possibility have been hemmed in by economic hardship, I argue, and I look at the roles of work, welfare and insecure housing on how political choices are imagined.

The piece is a little late in its publication! I wrote separately about my journey and its findings for Fair Observer back in October, where I focused on the effects of poverty, debt, and the formation of a new kind of working class, unrepresented by any political party.

While Island Story certainly hasn’t transformed the zeitgeist of the nation, it has had a warm reception. It was reviewed by the Financial Times, the LSE Review of Books, and the Manchester Review of Books. There were interviews with Nottingham’s Left Lion and About Manchester, and it had favourable coverage in the Morning Star and the venerable Wakefield Express. Individually, Natalie Bradbury, John Hutnyk, and John Ledger generously responded to it. It was also book of the week at the London Review Bookshop.

Given its unwieldly length, I applaud anyone who’s read it cover to cover as a worthy companion in an epic adventure.

Island Story tour

 

island

 

The United Kingdom appears less politically or socially stable than at any point in living memory. The confusion caused by a seemingly impossible Brexit vote has left the island with no obvious political direction or gravity. Incoherence is the watchword of the moment. The feeling of defeat that was so palpable in people’s conversations and gestures two years ago during the journey of Island Story repeats itself: failed promises, broken infrastructure, the universality of public dishonesty, and the retreat of many back into familiar pessimism and frustrated anger.

High time to hit the road then. Over ten days I’ll be cycling through and giving talks in Nottingham, Wakefield, Sheffield, Manchester, and Liverpool. Findings from Island Story will be contrasted with talk of today’s politics of island identity. These will be lively, open discussions, and I hope for open-minded participation. All events are free.

Nottingham: Thurs 11th August, Nottingham Contemporary at 6.30. “This is Nottz”.
http://www.nottinghamcontemporary.org/event/nottz

Wakefield: Sat 13th August, Redshed Working Men’s Club, 1pm on. As part of the “Fighting for Crumbs: Art in the Shadow of Neoliberal Britain” week of events.
Fighting For Crumbs (Art in The Shadow of Neoliberal Britain)
https://www.facebook.com/events/1766943633588740/

Sheffield: Sun 14th August, Site Gallery, with Glen Stoker and Anna Chrystal Stephens, 2pm-5pm. “Survey” – a landscape exploration.
http://www.sitegallery.org/archives/10092
https://www.facebook.com/events/530014483854301/

Manchester: Mon 15th August, Friends’ Meeting House, Mount Street, 6pm. “The Island”. Hosted by Manchester Left Writers and Social Sciences Centre Manchester.
https://www.facebook.com/events/1862152284071701/
Reserve tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-island-tickets-26586942260

Liverpool: Weds 17th August, News from Nowhere Bookshop, 6.30pm.
https://www.facebook.com/events/1113607842046631/
http://www.newsfromnowhere.org.uk/noticeboard/bookshopevents/index.php

Come down! Special thanks to David, Sophie, Allie, John, Nick, Steve, Sandra, Maria and Brian.

Future historians

albionate

Around 37% of voters on 7 May 2015 voted for a Conservative MP, giving the party a majority to form government. The election was, characteristically, defined by an aggressive and well-organised campaign across the national newspapers and broadcasters that effectively produced opinions of economic recovery and SNP menace in the people’s minds. FPTP effectively produced the characteristic result: key marginals and negative voting deciding the outcome (a common position would be “I choose Tory over Labour-SNP, even though I prefer Lib Dem”). The Commons now has some more Conservatives and few Lib Dems; meanwhile the unelected House of Lords and the unelected head of state carry on unperturbed.

Hand-wringing about a rightward shift in public opinion isn’t entirely justified. True, if we incorporate the 12.6% vote for UKIP, which resulted in one MP, and add this to the Conservative vote, then we could, arguably, claim that almost half of voters expressed a right-wing choice. And true, BSA surveys have traced a growing hostility to unregulated immigration, and a growing lack of sympathy to benefits claimants. But as my interviews last summer for Searching for Albion indicated, behind this common opinion are anxieties and struggles about low pay, unaffordable housing and a depressed lack of future. An effective deception-operation has migrants and claimants given as cause, but again I couldn’t say a majority of people I’ve met have taken on all the rhetoric. Questioning the narrative’s inconsistencies soon unravels it (how many migrants/claimants do you know? What proof have you they do this? Maybe instead it’s the case that… Etc.) The power of this operation is regularly indicated in surveys that trace a vast gulf between public polled opinions of various scandal-stories, e.g. number of immigrants, number of Muslims, and their actuality.

Believing that the entire public has taken on Tory myths about a collective negative solidarity over the deficit also seems unwarranted. The collapse of the Labour and Lib Dem vote (to be measured, in fairness, only in Scotland and English suburban/small town marginals) could itself be explained as expressive of a hatred of politicians, and the entrenched opinion that they are not credible, will lie if necessary, and have no relevant life experience. Memories of the Expenses scandal are sharp, and stories of mass surveillance, covered-up child abuse by politicians and newspaper hacking have coagulated into a glug of cynicism and distrust about ‘the Establishment’. Curiously the Lib Dems have been worst hit by this backlash in attempting to present themselves as something alternative. It was always likely that Miliband’s party would’ve collapsed in similar fashion over five years due to its commitment to austerity. But the narrative of Miliband’s rapid demise will probably be rewritten: too socialist, not aspirational enough. But he came across as robotic and fake (“as they all do”), and had no obvious policies. His inability to justify the previous Labour regime’s work in propping up the banking system also didn’t help. But the SNP and UKIP have absorbed the socialism that Miliband could’ve successfully advocated, drawing on trade union and left wing grassroots movements, instead of the bowdlerized hardworking families Blairite schtick.

Spinoza asked ‘why do people fight for their servitude as if for their salvation’? Five years of this government may well result in England and Wales leaving the EU, the loss of the protections of the Human Rights Act rendering employment in the UK an even more precarious experience, the collapse and privatisation of the NHS, the disappearance of social housing, the normalisation of suicides and deaths related to benefits sanctions and poverty, and the mass immiseration of the working class as in-work benefits are cut too. The City of London as a booming tax haven, the future a mess of debt repayments. It’s going to be awful. But it is not popular. So why do people fight for their servitude? Spinoza’s answer was that they do not. Populations are ‘enlisted’, as Frederic Lordon has recently phrased it, into servicing and experiencing the desires of their masters as their own (strong economy, tough on law and order, striking through red tape, punishing scroungers…).

We can read Spinoza, rightly, as a revolutionary. But his point is to understand how this kind of enlistment takes place. Always suspicious of free will, recognising that the ‘self’ was an internalised cultural by-product, Spinoza tells us that ideas and activities are produced by political institutions, languages, histories and customs, and emotional narratives we tell about ourselves. A total change has to capture these institutions, cultures and narratives by producing a unified public movement of its own. A counter-public with the aim of becoming the public. Because power is immanent in Spinoza’s system, models of total revolution or unleashing inner potential won’t help. Discoursing online or in the street, joining an already-arranged march, or voting for an independent left-wing party are good, but not enough. What’s required is this production of real counter-institutions. To aim for success without breaking current frames of reference and creating new ones is impossible. Entryism is an illusion with no proven long-term efficacy; it surprises me that it still remains voguish, though perhaps this reflects the ambitions of various activists thriving in the London media bubble. Producing counter-institutions rather than those with popular disenfranchisement built into them. Inevitably, what’s needed is the ground and virtual ability to counter the state’s violence and media fear operations with a counter-violence and counter-fear. The problem of violence, direct and indirect, faces the oppressed in this country every day, and protesters on occasion. To not have a position on it is to reinforce the status quo. And, above all, it belongs to the young, most disenfranchised of all by FPTP, whose minds are still open and willing to become a new public, one focused on the common good now and of the future.

Spinoza’s interventions into politics in his own life were always too theoretical, often occurring too late, and dangerously jeopardising his own safety. It is unlikely that the English Left will manage to change its ‘fortunes’ by 2020 (again, Spinoza instructs that fortune itself is a form of servitude to events we either refuse or are unable to understand). I’ve no illusions that this inarticulate note will be read by future historians. It felt like a good title. Those that do will already think like me. The same result will be repeated, because it always will, because such opinions and votes are socially produced. But it is not impossible. All things are as difficult as they are rare. The mobilisation of social democracy in Scotland indicates, even in the short-term, an inoffensive, winnable strategy. But facing the Scots after their probable independence in 5-10 years, and the dispersed English Left at the moment now, is what next?