Archive for May, 2010

Robin Hood in the 21st century. From hero of the poor to civil rights campaigner rallying the nation against foreign backed attempts at regime change.

Robin Hood: a populist yarn and surefire crowd pleaser if ever there was one. He lives in the woods with his merry men, stealing from the rich, and redistributing to the poor; all the while engaging in a tit for tat with his arch nemesis, the feudal lacky the Sheriff of Nottingham. What could go wrong?

Apparently for Hollywood executives nowadays, though, this all must sound a little bit too much like class struggle, or terrorism, or ominously like piracy off the coast of Africa. For in the new retelling of the story, teaming up director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe again, there is not a lot of stealing from the rich to give to the poor going on.Where in the conventional story a band of nothings wage something of guerrilla war against Nottingham’s greedy nobles, in Scott’s version Robin Hood instead becomes a prophet of civil liberties—demanding legal rights for the regional barons of England.

To give a most cursory plot summary: set in the 11th century the new king John through a mixture of arrogance, greed and simple bad statesmanship, ends up fomenting civil war in his own country. After Richard the Lionheart’s crusades (which Robin of course rejects as an enlightened pre-post-Christian multiculturalist) England is a depleted nation; but it is only the shenanigans of the French which push the situation to the point of insurrection, as the barons rally against the new king. This turns out to be instigated and plotted for the purposes of disuniting the country to aid the French invasion (one can imagine Iranian President Ahmadinejad nodding knowingly along with all of this).

When king John goes to address the barons plotting war against the crown, Robin Hood steps into the fray, attempting to fulfill his fathers dream of inscribing a charter of liberties into the nation’s laws. When John mockingly asks Robin if he ‘wants all men to have castles’ Robin—recast as a good liberal, civil rights campaigner with no egalitarian, material aims—wittily retorts that ‘every Englishman’s house is his castle.’ Thus, for the sake of the support of the barons, and to reunite a country on the verge of civil war against the real enemy (perennial johnny foreigner trying to take the green and pleasant land), Robin proposes that the king give his word to sign the new charter. The king agrees; the civil war is snubbed out and all the barons in the land unite, with Robin Hood leading the charge, to give the French a good drubbing at the white cliffs of Dover. Foreign backed attempts at regime change are resoundingly defeated.

Then for no obvious reason other than sheer bastardliness John rescinds his offer publicly and declares Robin Hood an outlaw. The film ends, with the promise of potential sequels.

The problems with this new plot line are not just ideological, however, but dramatic. Like with many new Hollywood epics such as the Star Wars prequels, what was previously cast as a group of rebel underdogs fighting against the clear antagonist of the rich and powerful—that is, with a clear conflict of interests driving the narrative dialectically forward—is replaced by something more akin to a split within factions of the state. Consequently, there is no real drama, as there are no real clear lines of antagonism. Most of the film is spent documenting the various high political intrigues and horse trading, with no really obvious protagonist or antagonist, other than the cinematographic clues given by the inordinate amount of time the camera spends focused on Crowe. The different sides are reduced to national stereotypes (sexually promiscuous and untrustworthy French vs. stoic Brits), and superficial psychologising—Robin Hood is good because he is outspoken, loyal, respectful, and trustworthy; King John is bad because he is arrogant, nepotistic, has a bad temper and doesn’t keep his word.

The result is a totally denuded and dramatically incoherent retelling of the story that attempts to carry the viewer along with flashy battle scenes and, admittedly spectacular, set and costume design. If there is a moral to this story, then, it is that the world historical individuals Hegel once speculated would bring reason on horseback probably wouldn’t be doing it just to present a new charter of right to the King. Social change requires real antagonisms to resolve its contradictions; currying favour with the king and relying on his good will for modest legal reforms, well, even Hollywood seems to admit that will not cut it.


Read Full Post »

The bulging shelves of bookstores' philosophy shelves: only possible due to institutional support

There have been numerous pieces on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) about the Middlesex philosophy closure, usually protesting it on the basis of the department’s research excellence. Below the line, though, some commenters have questioned the very purpose of philosophy: particularly of the continental variety. Surely as resources are squeezed by recession, their argument goes, such a decadent subject, contributing so little to the economy and practical skills has a hard time justifying its existence? Some even suggested that philosophy is something that should just be done in one’s spare time, and does not warrant either a teaching post, or years of full-time commitment to study.

There seem to be a number of naïve assumptions underwriting these suggestions. The first reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my undergraduate students after our last seminar of the term. A few pints in, he asked, like many of them tend to, ‘why do you only want to teach?’ I explained that teaching a related subject in a university is one of the few ways you can have both the mental space and a sliver of free time available to attempt to make philosophical breakthroughs. He had different plans though: he was going to be CEO of a company, and write landmark philosophy books—like a Cicero figure, of sorts. I wished him good luck; but in the full knowledge that nowadays with tens of thousands of philosophers working full time in their fields, the idea is fanciful that anyone can engage at that level of thought in their spare time. It is simply incredulous that we can return to the days when Enlightenment gentlemen wrote treatises in their spare time; and headed to the salons at nighttime to discuss them. All those that engage with contemporary philosophy will know that like most else in the modern world philosophy is not immune to the increasing specialization, division of labour, and depth of knowledge required to produce new knowledge in the field—precluding any retreat to an amateur approach. Like most other professionalized fields, that is, it requires institutional support for its intellectual labour.

There are what are in classical economics are called ‘externalities’. These are effects produced by the operation of the market that are not internalized within the market itself—like the costs of pollution, for instance. However, things sometimes work the other way. Production unsupported by the market that the market gains from quite unilaterally, without bearing the cost of it. Recently I was invited into a major publisher’s office to discuss their new philosophy line. They had done the research; in the marketplace philosophy is thriving. So there is obviously a large demand for these works. But for anyone who knows much about publishing it will not come as a shock to learn that for the authors there is little more than pocket money in royalties produced for all but a handful of authors like J.K.Rowling. It is thus the case the institutional support of universities permits the supply of such rich philosophical works available to the general public at a cheap price. If philosophers were, god forbid, forced to try and make a living from the royalties of their books, the whole system would be unsustainable at anything less than something like £500 a pop! The point being that even to for people to study philosophy in their spare time—at least to the standard available from any inner city bookstore at a reasonable price—it is precisely only institutional support which enables that in the first place.

This leads into the second accusation: the idea that there is no need for philosophy in the first place. Science allows us to build computers, bridges and put rovers on Mars, what can philosophy claim to contribute? Isn’t it all just a bit of a waste of time? But really this is a gross abstraction from the real world.  Few would deny that there is a persistent human tendency towards asking the ultimate questions. Questioning the cosmic, existential and greatest social-political questions has hardly withering away with capitalist modernity. In this sense I see philosophy, particularly of the continental variety, as serving principally the continuation of the Enlightenment project. This can be seen, most instrumentally, in drawing out the meaning of the multiple scientific and mathematical discoveries of the last three or four centuries. Alone science permits great technical advance, and yet this is not enough to render these insights meaningful for people’s everyday lives. In the other sense, I also see philosophy as filling in the hole left by the vacation of religion. Philosophy as a secular project seeks to understand what previously was attributed to divine causes. In my opinion it is the case that if philosophy withers, religion can return with vengeance. Cut philosophy, get theology.

Are attacks on philosophy correlated with the return of theology?

Indeed, under New Labour we have seen the introduction of faith based schools, and whilst I don’t (as yet) have the figures to back it up my gut instinct is that whilst philsophy departments have been consistently under threat, theology departments have done rather well. The Arts and Humanities Council, for instance, has a huge Religion and Society program underway. They also recently finished a large project on recovering all of Isaac Newton’s theological writings. In the last ten years theology has, through a combination of intellectual fashion and, I suspect, a well financed revenue stream made great inroads into philosophy itself. It is increasingly  expected that philosophers be familiar with the arcane metaphysics of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotas. So, the predictable Marxist that I am, I would argue that we need to defend philosophy precisely because it serves to keep religion and theology at bay.

This argument and others can be debated at the ICA event: ‘Who’s Afraid of Philosophy’.

Read Full Post »

Is Tariq Ali's call for a popular front with the rightwing to defend 'high quality education' the way forward?

Today was meant to be a talk by Tariq Ali at the ‘Transversal Space’ of occupied Mansion House, Middlesex University. Instead of a lecture, however, people arrived to discover that the whole building had been surrounded by security guards. An injunction had been served to the occupiers by university management, and individual students had been named in the document. These tactics obviously worked, because after holding the entire building for a week, the occupiers decided to leave as a group—using Ali’s talk outside on the lawn as the focus for a post-occupation rally.

I am never sure how to feel at these moments. Despite the applause all round—which the students obviously deserved after their heroic actions—applauding the exit leaves me feeling cold. Although the vacation of Mansion House by no means implies the end of the struggle, it provided a focus for activities with a real, corporeal commitment and, crucially, an expropriation of the university’s resources, i.e. its teaching space. The importance of this should not be underestimated.

The deflationary feeling was compounded by a bizarrely uninspiring speech by Tariq Ali. Meandering and obviously unprepared, it lacked the fire and brimstone befitting such a militant action.

Even worse was the content. Whilst liberal types are wont to bemoan the ‘unrealistic’ radical left, it seems to me that, quite the contrary, the radical left often suffers from far too little radicalism. Ali argued that all students should stand together to defend ‘high quality education’; that vice-chancellors should get a pay cut; and, most disturbingly of all, that a popular front should be formed with the centre and the right to defend public education.

Could these words have been spoken by a figure such as, say, Nick Clegg? After all, Tory-Lib Dem ministers have just agreed to take a pay cut. Tick. All profuse a commitment to high quality education. Tick. And all appeal to a broad base of liberal-left and rightwing libertarian sentiment. Tick, again. Surely at an event like this we should pushing exactly the kind of ‘unrealistic’ ideas to give the prefix radical in front of left its worth. These could include, for example: the abolition of all tuition fees and the democratic management of all universities by academics and students. It could also be linked into the wider struggle against cuts across the public sector, which will doubtless become the focus of a working class struggle in the coming years.

In general, I would have much preferred to hear more of the occupiers speak—to find out more of what they had learned through the experience, and their thoughts on the way forward. Figures of radicalism past like Ali, weary with the defeats of the 1980s, are probably not what is need to inspire a new generation, or push the ideas needed today.

ADDITION: This comment piece has already been attacked as ‘depressing’  ‘lies’ and ‘pre-written by the institute’ (which institute?). I would like to add the obvious observation that Necessary Agitation (NA) has been nothing less than highly supportive of the occupation from the start. NA was there at the first meeting as one of the initially minority voices encouraging the occupation. NA spent the next day canvassing support on the other two campuses of Middlesex university. And it was only work commitments that interrupted further involvement in occupation activities. It is not my belief that we should self censor ourselves at these key junctures. Rather, as this blog will not hesitate to do, it is rather our imperative if we believe in the cause above out egos to engage in critical responses to events.

Read Full Post »

Nick Clegg. Clapping or praying?

This winter was one of the coldest and deepest for a long time. Snow fell, and stayed. Even now we have only had a few weeks respite from an otherwise permafrosted year. For political pundits, however, there was one event anticipated which was going to introduce exciting change into our lives: the British general election, 2010.

But even here, despite the white-hot molten suspense the media have attempted to stoke for months now, well, the end result looks more like more of the same. In lieu of any real shift in social forces underlying the representative system we have had a predictably samey result to what has come before. A widely discredited and despised NuLab government has been punished with a hung parliament, of which they could possibly hold on to power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

But let’s leave that aside. What I want to list are the sheer levels of unfufilled popular notions about this election. All the things which were promised, then never delivered on.

  1. Cleggamania. Cleggmania may be the most chimeric social phenomenon in recent history. Whilst he was meant to have to have blown open the race, and reconfigured all the existing electoral coordinates, in the end the Lib Dems did hardly any better than the last election.
  2. BNP breakthrough. The BNP—that terrible bogeyman compelling honest Joe six-pack dissillusioned with all the mainstream parties to vote in any case—they in fact gained none of the seats they fielded candidates for. Their share of the vote went up, but there was no decisive swing to them.
  3. The Big Society New Tories. The Big Society idea inspired by the Phillip Blond red Tory faction fell totally flat. No one knew what the big society was; no one cared. The Tories would probably have done better just sticking to a more blatantly neo-Thatcherite position.

Fact is, the whole battle of ideas promoted by the media—vacuous differences over how to phase in cuts, political villains, gibberish ideologies, and so on—never conferred to the interests of any real social forces. It remains the case that if you want to see any real political change, it will only come from changing the objective alignments of deep social forces and social blocs. Whilst liberal pundits—The Guardian newspaper as the primary repository for such sentiment—continue to believe that simply triangulating interesting ideas and showy rhetoric represents a way forward, the advantage Marxists have is to understand exactly why this fails, when others are simply scratching their heads in disbelief.

Read Full Post »

Protesters making their way back to the Trent Park occupation

Yesterday marked the second day of the Middlesex occupation at Trent Park. Some stayed at the occupation of the Dean’s boardroom, whilst others fanned out across the other campuses at Hendon and Cathill to canvass support. At Hendon there was a surprising amount of security. It was not clear whether this had anything to do specifically with our campaign, or not, but there was certainly a degree of paranoia there. Reception refused to point us in the direction of the Dean’s office, and security guards (about 8 of them in one building!) were checking every ID. When we finally found what appeared the directorate’s corridor, it was not, then, shocking to discover that it not only had a keypad entry security system in place, but also a privately contracted security guard permanently positioned on the door. If nothing else it goes to show the estrangement of management in universities from their own students and staff when they feel the need to lock themselves away behind multiple levels of security provision.

At Cathill we found more sympathy than at Hendon for the campaign amongst the generally arty student body. Through talking to students we learned that many programs had been axed with students being accepted to programs only for management to cut those specific programs once they entered; and, of course, paid their tuition fees for. Much the same logic, it could be noted, of the Middlesex university management’s decision to close down the philosophy program whilst keeping the research money the department had won for itself.

The whole of mansion house occupied

In the evening at Trent Park a philosophy society party had been planned. This was to be the launch pad for escalation. However, on a health and safety technicality—some form not being correctly filled out—management unilaterally rescinded permission for the party at the last minute. Around 80 people gathered outside Mansion House. When the English party, taking place in a ground floor room at the front of the building, was winding down, the gathered protesters stormed into the building through the windows. Very quickly the building was barricaded and the occupation secured. There were some problems removing all the security personnel. Senior security guards could not find all their people. One security guard, clearly in a state of shock and frightened by the events, alleged that he had been assaulted and limped out of the building. Judging by the people involved, and the fact that a similar bogus charge was levelled the day before, it seems highly unlikely that this was the case. When I arrived on the top floor, occupiers had given him a chair and a drink and were patiently waiting for his seniors to extricate him from the building.

A democratic meeting to decide the way forward at nighttime

Perhaps an hour after the building had been secured, a police car arrived. They talked with the security guards, and the shocked young guard was taken away in an ambulance, but no action was taken. Around 10PM a meeting was called downstairs. Occupiers resolved to turn the occupation of Mansion House into a beacon for other anti-cuts struggles across the country and to plan an autonomous program of philosophy and arts events in the building.

Read Full Post »

A bold occupation at Middlesex university promises to escalate further

Today, after Dean of Arts Ed Esche failed to attend a meeting arranged with protesters against the closure of the philosophy department, a spontaneous occupation of the boardroom was initiated. Around 45 people moved into the room. The police were called by the university, but found no grounds for eviction of the protesters or arrests.  Some entirely fatuous claims of assault and destructive behaviour were briefly levelled at the protesters; even the police dismissed these charges out of hand.

It took some time before the decision to extend the occupation indefinitely was made. However, initial fears by some of the occupiers gave way to an increasing determination and radicalism; eventually the decision was made with a near complete consensus, despite earlier splits suggesting a walk out at 6PM. There were further debates regarding what the demands of the occupation should be. Some suggested placing a demand that Ed Esche fulfil his promise of a meeting to end the occupation; others suggested proposing an independent review to determine the fate of the department. Ultimately, these suggestions were defeated in favour of an open ended occupation emphasizing the key demand of no closure—not as a condition for the end of the occupation, rather as a reason for the occupation as part of the protest movement.

The challenges ahead involve further publicizing the campaign, bringing more students and academics from other departments on board, and forging links with other student and anti-cuts campaigns. Tomorrow (Wed 4th May) there will be a rally at the other campus and there will also be a party on the ground floor of Mansion House at Trent Park. Please come and encourage others to come. Tomorrow will mark the beginning of the escalation of the occupation. More on this soon.

Read Full Post »

Phillip Blond's 'Red Tory' peddles nationalistic, liberal racism as a necessary response to the BNP threat, just as the mainstream political parties do

As a short follow up to both my review of Phillip Blond’s Red Tory and my post asking ‘Is anti-fascism a waste of time?‘ I would like to combine the two to compound the argument I forwarded in the latter post. In this post I questioned the wisdom, given the limited resources of the left, of structuring activities around opposing the BNP. Rather, I advocated targeting our ire at the liberal racism of the mainstream political parties, where they use the ‘threat’ of the BNP as a justification for their own much more powerful and influential anti-immigrant discourse and legislation.

If there is one book in which the bogeyman of the BNP is blatantly used for forwarding a parochial, nationalistic and quietly anti-immigrant politics it is Phillip Blond’s Red Tory.  In the introduction Blond attributes the growth of the BNP—no figures are actually quoted, of course (that would actually derail the BNP’s rhetorical usefulness as a threat)—-to a “collapse of British culture, virtue and belief.” (p.2) From herein the twin strategy of denouncing BNP fascists in order to argue for various nationalistic cultural and economically protectionist policies becomes something of a reliable trope in Red Tory, as it also is for the Tories as a whole, as well as Labour and the Lib Dems. In this sense Red Tory acts as a case study for the cynical use of the BNP in propping up the rationale of mainstream liberal racism.

For instance, Blond writes conspiracy think resentiment such as: “We became multi-cultural and cosmopolitan but at the price of an open borders policy that looked at times designed to destroy the prospects and outcomes of the white working class.” (p. 128) This could, of course, be straight out of the textbook of BNP canvassing lines. Not further on in the text he discusses the BBC—whose new generation of employees have all, apparently, suffered from a miseducation in “bad, French philosophy” (p. 140) [damn those frogs!]—and approves that it “rightly refuses to reflect back the values and beliefs of the BNP”, but argues that ‘we’ need to go further to “recover instead the Reithian belief in the sort of people we British ought to be and what sort of culture we should have as a result.” (p. 141)

The same sort of thing is replete throughout Red Tory. Condemn some easy racist target and use it as an excuse to advocate a remarkably similar sugar-coated nationalistic vision. If even a Tory prop like Blond can find some easy moral pivot for advocating an extremely backward looking vision of society and politics, the left should really question whether running around screaming at the BNP and penning raging polemics against the ‘Nazi BNP’ is really a good use of our time and energies?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »