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?

Departing

england

Last night has now eaten into this morning, and here I am with my empty bottles and missing time, making a half-hearted attempt at an audit. Let’s spare the scribbles and agree that there’s a certain pleasure in always being busy and late for things. But it’s not always that delightful. J.G. Ballard’s right: in the heat of beating some deadline, there’s a certain masochism at the source of our pleasure. Masochism, mania and melancholia are at the root of most endeavours so insane that, without rational explication, they have to be done. Beyond an extraordinary detail to dramatic scenes, there is no greater quality in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky than a reflection on the masochistic promises of romance,  a romance that fails to deliver, and by its failure, delivers so much more.

In two months time by my reckoning I will be in Glasgow, having cycled anticlockwise around the British mainland, with lengthy digressions into the Midlands and Peak District. Sleeping in parks, pedaling up lung-bursting heights and keeping up with the heavy-drinkers of England and Scotland will no doubt reduce my capacity for wireless fidelity internet, but I will record what I can at http://www.searchingforalbion.com. The site will be a cabinet of curiosities as I pass through places, a record of what I see and hear. It will get a smaller readership than the kind of top 10 lists that represents the best of online journalism. The goal is to indicate how simple and interesting it is to travel.

I often reach for the strong stuff when I write – rousing invective, political polemic, some worthy social goal. Zzz. I’m bored with the thoughts in my own head, and with those of others. I’ve studied history and political philosophy and had prizes for my essays, yet I’m advancing little beyond the predictable views that constitute a mainstream in universities and an aloof left media out of touch with popular cultures. Most people I meet talking about the working-class and the need for revolution come across as middle-class and conservative, righteous reformers of a Methodist hue. Good intentions and reforms reflect the vanities of those that seek to justify them.

Many prefer not being told what to do. How long it has taken me to accept this.

It’s not just a London problem, granted. But I’m throwing myself out of my sphere in the aim of discovering, for once, what I don’t know. No research plan or campaign message attached. The university isn’t the best place to think about new formations of equal, just and secure democracies. Instead of churning out more elitist articles or adding more words to a thesis destined for a recycle bin, let’s see where being out in the world goes. Probably nowhere. Looks like I’ve already managed to type around 500 words of the usual self-righteous balls I go for. I leave tomorrow morning.

http://www.searchingforalbion.com

This house is a sham

Claude Monet, "Sun Breaking Through the Fog", 1904

Claude Monet, “Sun Breaking Through the Fog”, 1904

I want to briefly talk about the need for a new kind of parliamentary democracy.

Nearly eight hundred years ago, in a field twenty miles west of here, the arbitrary and unjust rule of King John was forcibly restricted by a group of rebellious barons. The Magna Carta established the basis for a regular parliament, with powers to limit the king. It established a law of the land, giving every free man the right to due process, to fair legal treatment against the arbitrary violence of the state.

It began a line of thinking that would lead to parliamentary democracy. When we ask now, what should a parliament do, and I want to ask everyone – what should our parliament do? – we think of impartial representatives who speak up and make sure that the welfare and basic rights of the majority, of the collectivity, are the most important basis of all the state’s actions.

You’d think that in 800 years we might have come closer to realising some model of parliamentary democracy. True, there’s now universal suffrage for all men and women that our ancestors fought and died for. Yesterday’s terrorists are today’s democratic heritage. But today this right to vote doesn’t matter. Young people are deserting politicians in droves, in the UK and elsewhere. This right to due process, to fair legal treatment, is being fatally undermined by successive Tory-led and Labour governments with cuts to legal aid, and with legislation that exploits the fear of terrorism with a terrorism of its own, subjecting everyone to total surveillance and making it possible to arrest and detain people without charge.

Our parliament is a sham. It has failed to respond to the crises of the last few years. It has done nothing to prevent another banking crisis, nor punished those who caused the last. It has casually awarded itself pay-rises and generous expenses whilst the living standards of most people, particularly the poor, plummet. Look around. Insecurity is the new normal. Food banks; police spying, lying and killing of unarmed people; the career-insecurity, exam stress and huge debts that now dictate life for most young people; the decline in skilled and dignified employment; the lack of a long-term solution for our energy needs and environmental problems; where the working classes, the unemployed, and the disabled, have been made out to be a modern-day vermin. Many more, I won’t go on. Because of these failures, the word ‘politician’ has become a term of hatred second only to ‘banker’. Unpopular politicians are democratically illegitimate.

Some people think that the Labour party can be reformed. I disagree. The next government, quite possibly a Labour one, will bring in many of the same Oxbridge-educated people who formed the last one. Its leader has repeatedly praised Margaret Thatcher! I wonder, how many of tomorrow’s MPs will come from state schools, or without a university education, or without experience in business, law and PR, or without being the child of an existing MP? How many people are in the House of Lords because of their political allegiance to the government, or for donating to whatever party’s in power? Piecemeal attempts at reform cannot overturn this. Corruption is at root and branch. This is not a parliament fit for the majority of the British people.

What’s the answer? I’m not entirely sure. Unlike politicians, I don’t claim to be right, to have a monopoly on the ever-changing truth. But reactionary policies and a slavish pursuit of good media coverage and a few swing voters by Ed Milibot isn’t the answer. What will he actually agree to do if elected? I’m not sure, nor is he accountable if he does not. There’s nothing I’ve heard that suggests that this House will try, through policy, to tackle the long-term problems of housing, poverty, work, the environment, energy, of retaining a free national health service. More of the same stalling, mutual blaming and inaction. More fiddling and diddling.

I think instead that for anyone committed to equality, justice, and liberty, which I think most of us are, we need to start the fight for a new kind of parliament. One without political parties, without jeering public school boys, without the possibility for mega-rich party donors to dictate state decisions. Where it is impossible for five families to have more wealth than the poorest 20% of this nation. A parliament for the people, made up of people from all walks of life in its lower chamber, perhaps selected in a way similar to jury service, and made up of experienced and impartial experts in all fields in its upper chamber. With an elected, not hereditary, head of state. Accountable and transparent. With a codified constitution to prevent police violence and political corruption. With a set of civil rights to prevent the vulnerable dying when their benefits have been unfairly stopped, and from so many working people living under the daily anxiety of debt and hardship. With regular opportunities for direct democratic and proportional representation, beyond the 5-year first past the post shambles.

It is possible. I don’t think I’m being entirely utopian here. I’m expressing the same kind of ancient ideas that led to the formation of a jury, of a right to due process, of equality in law between rich and poor, of the right of all adult citizens to vote, of a welfare system, of free universal education up to the age of 18, and a national health service. Each puts the welfare of the majority at its centre. Not through words, but through democratic institutions.

I’m not a fortune-teller, but I’d bet that 2015 will see a low voter turnout, particularly among the young. Why vote, when there’s nothing to vote for, when the difference between major parties is little? British politics is facing a crisis of legitimacy. This house is a sham. Let’s start thinking about a new parliament of the people.

 

* The above is what I said at the People’s Parliament at the House of Commons this week.

The name of western democracy

Torino-Paris Aug13 060

[This isn’t a repost but an original article for this blog, about time I guess]

I’ve been troubled by the remarks of Russian Senator Nikolai Ryzhkov, quoted in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. His words can be read on a number of levels. Regarding the political crisis in Ukraine, he said that Russia should be prepared for the west to “unleash their dogs on us”. “They ruined Yugoslavia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, all in the name of western democracy. It’s not even double standards, it’s political cynicism.”

As Germany and the United States continue to issue threats, events skitter between an unstable compromise over Crimea and outright war. Simply, his words are a statement of international defiance. Russia makes preparations to defend its political and economic interests in what it considers as one of its client states. It rejects any political or humanitarian criticism from the West in advance, by pointing to the destruction, war, and shambolic failure to establish political institutions that western intervention has brought elsewhere. Intervention, including intervening to prevent international scrutiny to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Palestine, does not appear so contradictory when economic motives, rather than ‘women’s rights’ or ‘fair elections’, are placed at its head. The name of western democracy is not a sincere one, if it signifies only the justification of international aggression against economically disobedient states.

It also reflects the declining relevance of the UN, another well-meaning post-WW2 institution that ‘western democracy’ has effectively eroded. The corrupt behaviour of elected representatives, election fraud, the devastating influence of lobbyists, and the collective feeling in the young that politics is a pre-rigged, worthless game are all unanswered verdicts on democracy in American and western European states.

More troubling is the meaning of democracy in these cases, which no English-speaking writer has yet to satisfy me on. To understand the problems in Ukraine based simply on a left-wing, pro-democracy (and somewhat pro-EU) ‘#Euromaidan’ protest movement, against a corrupt Russian-propped puppet government, is to give too much attention to Kiev over the wider country, where a significant amount of its eastern citizens are actively pro-Russian, and generally seem to demand its intervention. It also overlooks the importance of nationalist feelings (either pro-Ukrainian, or pro-Russian), which have motivated and maintained the strength and unity of both sides of the escalation, be it against riot police in Kiev, or seizing government buildings in the eastern and Crimean towns. Again, well-meaning commentators here continue to insincerely place hope that the desire for freedom will win over the people. But such a freedom is meaningless unless it is predicated on a collective political identity that demands it, and it is this which in Ukraine, and in many other western states, the Left has been unable to address.

To insist that nationalist identification is somehow an aberration of ideology, an effect of politically-enforced ignorance, as a merely ‘imagined community‘, as many western commentators do, will not help to explain what sustains so many political movements, including anti-colonial and communist struggles (of course, fascism and religious authoritarianism too). Deny a person their feeling that their origin and identity matters, or that the way they can identify with others is through the collective belonging and aspirations of a culturally and linguistically homogeneous identity, and you ignore much of the source of their political desire.

This feeling is what Ken Loach’s ‘The Spirit of ’45‘ film (2013) played on, the sacrifices of a national people for a better society (understanding ‘national’ in the sense regarded then, particularly in Commonwealth countries, as something beyond just the UK), though again no English-speaking writer recognised this. It does surprise me that no writer since George Orwell has recognised that the possibility of democratic socialism, based on equality, justice and liberty, could only be possible in England if it was persuasively attached to popular identity and traditions. And so when commentators worry over the declining influence of the Left after the Cold War, they ought to consider why the Left no longer starts its politics from popular identity, rather than supposing some veil of ideology from which a pure and unrefined reality exists. The belief in such a reality is the hallmark of prejudice.

Meanwhile, the meaning of immigration and anxieties over cultural identity, issues which continue to dominate surveys of voters’ concerns, are clumsily handled. Few are able to persuasively articulate why toleration and equality are more important to our cultural identity than what language your fellow-passenger speaks on a train.

Perhaps, going back to the Ukraine for a moment, a close parallel is Egypt. In 2011, a large and strategically well-organised set of protest movements arose, representing many interests and grievances, of which the dominant account presented (at least in our ‘western democracy’) were the political aspirations of a frustrated urban middle-class, liberal in outlook and university-educated, which managed to effectively challenge the legitimacy of the Mubarak government. This forced the state to unveil the basis of its power, its violent police who will rise up against any revolutionary uprising. The ability of protesters to resist them inspired other citizens that a fight could be won for a fairer government. However democratic elections in Egypt did not produce an ‘Arab Spring’ freedom fighter, but the leader of a popular Islamic party with great influence outside the capital. The political incompetence of this leader, along with his belligerent refusal to cooperate with others, led to another sovereign crisis in which the military intervened and are in the process of installing a more favourable leader. Authoritarian rule, founded on violence and fear of violence, has been restored.

The situation may seem different in Ukraine. There is a power-play between former cold war powers, and its country is more divided on national and cultural lines. But in both cases a small pro-democracy movement sparked a wider civil conflict in which it rapidly lost influence, unable to collectively offer a positive self-identity and agreed set of political proposals. Western analysis devoted great attention to this initial movement but lost interest in the less theoretically clear matter of what followed. What of populations who freely elect leaders that clearly intend to install repressive policies? Of where the people are each time united, and divided, on along national and religious identities that narratives like ‘democracy’ are unwilling to influence? How valid are the claims of western democracy, its internationalism and demand for global human rights, when this language is more often than not cynically purposed to justify military aggression? Where its own citizens cannot count on fair political representation, and who go without work, shelter, food, healthcare, or countless other social rights, as its leaders take turns to play Richard III on the international stage?

So far, my point: the name of western democracy quickly becomes a euphemism for a form of modern economic and political aggression by an association of nation-states, military forces, paramilitary forces, energy and resources companies, and slightly gullible INGOs.

Let me present the problem another way. Now, in the west, the form of democracy presented to us has become equally unpopular. Democracy as unpopular, what does this mean? Consider the real desertion of trust and interest in politicians and political affairs across Europe. I’ve heard well-meaning people claim that educating young people about politics will end their apathy. It’s always based on a misunderstanding, that they do not know much of this vague and unspecific term, politics. But it’s easily discovered that the ideals of equality, fairness, justice, freedom, toleration and so on are easily grasped and commonly defended by young and old. What they lack instead is trust that these barely-elected officials will do anything more than lie, brag, steal or jeer. But commentators still aren’t listening.

Last November, an article entitled “Western democracy: decline and…” appeared on OpenDemocracy. Its authors, Ernesto Gallo and Giovanni Biava, make a number of arguments against our contemporary form of democracy which may be familiar. They fear that globalisation and the rule of the market has now made democracy irrelevant. A people in a state no longer have the power to decide the economic direction of their country. In the Eurozone we have seen how local referenda in Ireland, or governments in Greece or Italy, have been effectively toppled or dismissed not so much by the will of the people there, but by international economic forces.

That’s fine in explaining part of the issue, but it does not account for the decline of interest in any politics. It leaves to many unanswered questions about how effective those ‘democratic’ institutions were which supposedly declined. We still need a modern day definition of democracy and democratic action. Consider the failure of the anti-austerity movement, and the recent incarnation of Peoples’ Assemblies, to seize the mainstream. In these cases I describe, there’s nothing to feel: no account to popular identity, or to pride, or to things that can be hoped for, that can be fought for and won. Some of our best minds, far more intelligent and politically active than I will ever be, give countless hours to debunking right-wing narratives, fighting fictions with facts, occasionally winning exposure in a highbrow newspaper or late-night TV news discussion. Good stuff, I think. But less time is spent in producing stories, scenes and beliefs that directly win through to popularity, that become popular. Too much time is lost on reaction, on rejection, on righteous indignation. These are insufficient emotional ties to bring more people together to live for, and hope for, a future democracy.

I don’t mean popular according to some common vision of the ‘people’ as self-seeking, reactionary, hoping only for a tax-cut, the ‘hard-working families’ Ed Milibot drips on about. Dismissals of ‘populism’ starts from the premise that either most people are stupid, or that when most people get together, they are dangerous. We might call the first a monarchical prejudice, and the second an aristocratic prejudice, though maybe that’s a bit too pretentious. Anyway, it’s easy enough to see what passive and active resistance any kind of patronising or condescending attitude creates: look at eruptions of frustration in public buildings or in the modern classroom where teachers are themselves taught that today’s young people only care about money, careers, and cannot focus for more than 2 minutes. I am very glad to say that, from recent teaching experience, most things I have been taught about young people in education are totally wrong.

Equally, if the people are not too stupid or dangerous, there’s another common fear that the people in such states are too misled, or incapable, of wresting power back anyway. It’s common to hear newspapers and TV news as brainwashing the people, preventing them from even being able to independently make an impartial political judgement. Even populism, appealing to political popularity, is deemed a dangerous and suspicious thing. There is a great deal of pessimism by people, especially on the left, about the apparently growing popularity of anti-immigration, right-wing parties in Europe, and their irrational appeal to traditional identities and populism. I find this strange, because as someone who has studied 20th century British history for some years, this anti-immigration party popularity has never been old or new, but a feature of societal division in most decades.

Some theorists now, like Jacques Ranciere or Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, call our era ‘post-political’. For them, political language is now empty of meaning, full of ‘spin’ and PR, where politicians speak only of consensus, which implies that we should all consent to their particular view, and where the power of the markets is the most reliable and impartial way of ordering a society. All of this concedes too much lost ground to unpopular and untrusted mainstream political parties and their powerful allies. Many people seem to have increasingly had enough of this kind of politics, sure, but that doesn’t discount a more general social and political awareness.

What’s missing in this genuinely popular politics is, to my mind, a vision of a better society, like that which motivated the often violent campaigns of the Suffragettes, of the early 20th century workers movements, or of the desire to a new democratic welfare state after the second world war in Britain. My point is not to confer some collective genius on the ‘people’: that is too abstract, insufficiently explained, and too commonly argued already. No. I mean that there has not yet been an adequately democratic expression of the majority. What I think we lack is an argument for equality, liberty and justice that starts from popular identity, and an argument for these things which doesn’t just expect that the majority will get it right in whichever context they are in. There can be no reasonable or secure democracy unless there are institutions in place, safeguards and constitutional checks, which turn a disorganised and contrary group of individuals into a genuinely popular government, a government by and for the majority of people. A multitude or people is not a democracy, unless it has executive, juridical and deliberative institutions in place, in the form of a proper constitution, civil law and set of civil rights, that guarantee that the welfare of the majority is placed as the overall end to which all political and economic activity operates for.

Similarly, the verbose quibbling over the names of things (like class, object, politics, being, praxis, theory, spatiality, materiality, radical, or will, and so on forever), repeats a problem of the universities several centuries ago. It attributes some underlying reality to the name of a thing beyond what it is immediately a sign of. It sees momentary class solidarity as pertaining to some eternal ‘classness’, or an action of popular political activity as pertaining to some abstract ‘will’. This leads to the absurd calls later for a rediscovery of class, or will, or anything else, along such abstract lines that only the author of such theory can authoritatively claim to know the ‘true path’. This leads to the empty warring of egos in whichever forum: publications, meeting halls, or on the stage of international news, over the true name of western democracy.

But philosophers that today are taught as classic fare were, in their own time, declaring war on university school-men and their empty disputations over abstract universals. Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza and others rightly criticised any confusion of a thing (a stone) with some abstract essence (stone-ness). With our question, they would understand democracy not as the ‘essence’ of people power, but as an occasion or set of institutions that effectively produces popular power. On which count, our modern-day democracies might be more correctly termed aristocracies.

Writing in the midst of civil war and looming international invasion, the Dutch philosopher Spinoza asked why people will fight for their slavery as if for their salvation. Spinoza’s solution, unfinished when he died, was a political programme that organised the institutions of democratic representation, justice, and infrastructure, with the collective desire of a united people at its centre. It might seem that in this thought-piece, I am just as guilty as those I criticise for reacting to and rejecting what exists, rather than articulating what I am for. I can only answer with an IOU, that this is my goal, and I will give more information on it when I can.

I am still troubled by Ryzhkov’s words, and I’m not wise enough to make predictions about the future. But turning our minds back to our own yards, until the believers of equality, liberty and justice can produce a credible and positive politics that begins from popular identity, engaging the people and populism on its own terms, our theories are little more than the barking of dogs.