New Year’s Day 2022 – an azure and windless sky beckons, promises and resolutions hang not yet tested in the still air. New Year’s Days I’ve had too many to mention but this one is different. It’s surreal, sinister and disconcerting.
I’m now into my 75th year on this god-forsaken earth. For more than half a century I’ve spouted forth about the evils of capitalism, even advocated revolution but my stance has not cost me dear. A tapped phone here, a night on a police station floor there, a few bruises on the picket line. Nothing to write home about. Indeed, it might well be argued that I’ve made something of a career out of being the useful ‘token ‘radical, not ‘in and against’ rather ‘in and compromised’ by the State. I’m of a post-war generation, whose lives were improved to different degrees by the struggles of our forefathers and mothers. With all its warts, and I railed against its shortcomings, the social-democratic society was a step forward. Neoliberalism has been closing down its gains for over forty years. I’ve sought to criticise this assault, arguing against the insidious influence of behaviourist psychology and worrying about the danger of us sleepwalking into an authoritarian and intolerant society. Again I have not been taken to task by the powerful for this dissension. As far as being troubled goes, it’s been wrought by my own self-doubt and anxiety. As a dear friend whispered gently, ‘being a couch revolutionary isn’t exactly uncomfortable’.
Two years ago I would have shaken my bald pate in disbelief at the predicament I face this New Year’s Day. The Greek government has determined that all the citizens and residents of the country, who are over 60 years of age will be vaccinated with the ‘booster’. Refusing to comply will lead to the following State punishments.
Each person resisting will be fined 100 euros each successive month until they give in. Over 25% of Greek pensioners, around 700,00 persons, receive less tha 500 Euros a month and even the average pension amounts to only 869 euros before deductions. In my case it seems that if I resist the 100 Euros will be procured for the government by my accountant.
Each person resisting will not possess therefore a valid vaccine passport. This means they will only be allowed access to supermarkets, grocery stores and chemists, to food and medicine. They will be barred from all public indoor spaces – tavernas, kafeneion, the beating heart of Greek life, even, I’m not sure, the Church – and public events. If this is enforced they will be excluded from the majority of what we might call civil society.
I want you to be shocked and angry in the face of such a draconian scenario, imposed by a government without an ethical leg to stand on. I worry that the propaganda machine churning out numbers, numbers, numbers will continue to cloud the issue. Mass testing alongside the emergence of a milder but more infectious variant will inevitably mean an upsurge in infections, leave aside the fact that the USA Centre for Disease Control has just disowned the PCR test, admitting its unreliability. A touch late, methinks.
In essence, the Mitsotakis government’s authoritarianism, whilst running deep in its historical blood, is inseparable from the influence of the corporate and pharmaceutical giants of our era. It is about power and profit. It is about politics. It is not about health. At this point, some readers may sigh. Am I in Covid denial? For now, I will only say that I believe that the COVID threat to society as a whole has been exaggerated enormously; that from a health point of view things could have been managed so very differently.
Peak Case Fatality Rate in winter 2020
Case Fatality rate in June 2021
4 in 100,000
4 in 100,000
14 in 100,000
20 in 100,000
8 in 10,000
5 in 10,000
2 in 1000
1 in 1000
8 in 1000
3 in 1000
80 or above
Table 1: Proportion of people catching covid who die with it by age in England – official gov.uk figures
The data presented above for June 2021 does not take into account booster vaccinations, early treatments and Omicron being less dangerous than earlier variants. These figures are calculated based on every ‘covid death’ including those where covid may well have been a bystander infection as often occurs with respiratory viruses. [Taken from ‘The Six Miracles of COVID’ Health Advice Recovery Team]
Thus, walking Glyka this morning, I felt my back was against the stone wall running down our lane, never mind that it was crumbling with the passing years. What to do? If I decline to be boosted I don’t think I am a health hazard. I don’t think I am being irresponsible. The growing evidence, given the vaccine has not lived up to the hype, is that the unvaccinated and the vaccinated are no more dangerous in terms of transmission to each other than each other. The mandatory vaccination of the over 60s here in Greece owes nothing to its democratic tradition, harking back much more to the dark days of the junta. As with all authoritarianism, it is industrial in its practice. The idea that treatment ought to be tailored to the particular history and circumstances of the individual is an anathema; that the principle of bodily autonomy, ‘our body, our choice’, is fundamental regarded as passe; that a healthy older person with no underlying comorbidities with legitimate concerns about the safety of an experimental drug has every right to demur is seen as utterly unacceptable; and as for the once cherished notion of informed consent that’s consigned to the historical bin.
Obviously, given my analysis of the situation, I should refuse the jab. Yet I prevaricate. I’m perplexed and angry. There’s nothing unique about the corner I’m in. Insofar as it’s special it’s to do with relationships, most intimately with my family. Becoming a ‘refusenik’ would curtail all sorts of simple social acts, just having a morning coffee down in the village. It would prevent me from travelling to see my children and grandchildren. Perhaps, if I was made of sterner stuff I would hold out. As things stand, in the absence of visible collective resistance, I suspect, I will shame-facedly comply. I have until the 16th of January to decide. Rather than be true to the active intent of the slogan, ‘educate, agitate, organise’ I’ll retreat passively into being agitated. I will persuade myself that I will live to fight another day. Will that be when the fourth jab is demanded? History will be the judge.
“There will be 500,000 deaths in the UK.” Neil Ferguson, Imperial College. March 16, 2020
“The perceived level of threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent. using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” SAGE [SPI-B]. March 22, 2020
“The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades. All over the world, we are seeing the devastating impact of this invisible killer. From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.” Boris Johnson, March 23, 2020
These three utterances capture the conscious hyperbole and calculated cynicism inherent in the outpourings of both politicians and their hand-picked experts at the beginning of 2020. Despite the pronouncements of the World Health Organisation [WHO] and Patrick Vallance, the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor [March 13, 2020], ‘a very mild illness for nearly all of us’, the die was cast. The people of the UK, man, woman and even child, were to be frightened, terrorised. That they knew little of what they should be afeard was by the by. The people were deemed too ignorant to understand. The democratic notion that they should be informed and decide upon the appropriate response, nothing but absurd. This was war and only the High Command could possibly know what was best.
“Is there any means known more effective than war, assuming you wish to alter the life of an entire people?” — minutes of the Carnegie Foundation, 1908.
As for the enemy, the virus did not play fair. It could not be bombed, or even. so it proved. vaccinated out of existence. The virus itself was irritated by the abstract name by which it was designated, COVID-19, but pleased as its offspring were graced with Greek epithets, Alpha, Beta, Delta. How long might this go on – even unto Zita? In truth, the virus doubted such a historic possibility. Its impact upon the mass of unfortunates who crossed its path was in the main little out of the ordinary – headache, cough, temperature, tiredness, lack of taste, the shivers if badly affected, hardly anything if not. Its forefathers and mothers had inflicted much the same. In truth the virus felt a mite guilty, its conscience pricked. Here, there and everywhere, in the end, COVID-19 was primarily a deathly problem for the old and/or vulnerable with underlying complications. The virus thought they were too easy a target for a pathogen, said to be an existential threat to humanity.
In Greece, where I live, as of November 1, 52 deaths were recorded in the last 24 hours, bringing the overall total of pandemic victims to 15,990. Of these, 95.4% had an underlying condition and/or were aged 70 or over. The official percentage figure is typical across Europe . It is time to put aside my personalization of the virus. Not least because treating the virus as a sentient being has been a staple throughout the mainstream narrative. The virus, it is said, has closed schools, youth groups and playgrounds, pubs and restaurants, parks and gyms. Indeed in its cunning, it leaves you alone when dining, mask set aside but stalks you to the toilet if you forget the face covering. For the virus is struck dumb in the face of masks, worn properly or otherwise, rendered impotent. Why this plastic face cloth should warn off the virus is irretrievably woven into the mythology of the pandemic. Evidence for its efficacy is thin on the ground – see Part Four of this rant. However the manufactured tension between the masked and the maskless, the good and the bad, the obedient and disobedient, the responsible and irresponsible has been deeply divisive. It has turned us against each other, serving to distract our attention from those who are responsible for the 18-month worth of imposed interventions into our daily existence. Divide and rule so the old saying goes. As I write the unvaccinated in Greece are being denied access indoors to kafenia and tavernas, the beating heart of community life.
All of which returns us into the arrogant hands of the medical and behavioural experts gathered together in March 2020. Pompously they ignored the fundamental premise of a holistic public health policy. This held that when faced with a specific health threat the response must, at one and the same time, deal with the particular whilst taking full account of any actions taken upon the general health of society as a whole. The consequences of this skewed strategy – the impact upon the mental health of so many people, not least children, to take but one example – was criminally ignored until the last few months. I must confess to a distaste for the crocodile tears shed lately. Anyone remotely in touch with the worlds of formal and informal education, health and social care, knew full well that lockdown would be harmful for the younger generation.
No matter, the first national press conference set the scene, a nervous Prime Minister, deprived of buffoonery, flanked by his experts and following an ignorant, one-sided notion of the Science, warned us of catastrophe if we did not do as we were told. The assembled press concurred. These journalists, an embarrassment to their profession, the stenographers of our times, nodded and took dictation. Touching their forelock they asked the meek and mildest of questions. Criticism, even curiosity was frowned upon. The next morning the mainstream media from the Sun to the Guardian shared the shorthand and replicated in unison the government’s propaganda. Labour, desiring to prove its conservative credentials, to be tougher than tough on the virus, parroted the line.
On what you might regard as a flimsy personal aside, the order to stay at home didn’t seem quite right to me. Growing up as a child in the 1950s, Doctor Cull, the community’s and my family’s faithful GP insisted that when I had a cold I should get as much fresh air as possible. Later, in my teens, given my dad worked down the pit, I went with him several times to the Miners’ Convalescent Home in Southport. There we would push many a collier with respiratory problems along the seafront and the length of the magnificent prom. Taken away from the cramped terraced houses of their birth the bracing air was seen as vital to their recovery.
As for the behaviourist vanguard leading the fight, knowing that the virus was nowhere near lethal for the majority, it determined that a marketing strategy was required. The plague needed to be advertised. In the absence of dead bodies on the streets, people might well not pay sufficient notice. The relentless brainwashing was set in motion. The slogans abounded, appealing to a smug sanctity.
STAY HOME, PROTECT THE NHS, SAVE LIVES PROTECT YOUR LOVED ONES I WASH MY HANDS TO PROTECT MY NAN I WASH MY HANDS TO PROTECT MY FAMILY I WEAR A FACE-COVERING TO PROTECT MY MATES I MAKE SPACE TO PROTECT YOU
And, almost criminal in their lack of ethical concern.
IF YOU DO GO OUT YOU CAN SPREAD IT. PEOPLE WILL DIE DON’T KILL GRANNY CORONAVIRUS. ANYONE CAN GET IT. ANYONE CAN SPREAD IT DON’T MEET UP WITH MATES. HANGING ABOUT IN PARKS COULD KILL
Without a doubt, these formulaic sound-bites marked young people’s cards in a time-honoured way. If they met in the park or wherever any rise in cases was down to their self-centred insubordination.
When it comes to assessing the ups and downs of the pandemic in statistical terms the mainstream media know only the language of spikes and surges. Nothing is contextualised. The Guardian, once the go-to bastion of liberal, progressive, pluralist journalism carries a daily banner indicating cases, hospitalisations and deaths. These categories are only revelatory if they are broken down. This is never the case. To do so would uncover all manner of inconsistency and distortion. Meanwhile, the Guardian eschews any idea that it should promote a critical exchange between differing analyses of the pandemic predicament. Rather it exudes sneering scorn for any departure from COVID-19 orthodoxy. It sinks to the level of the tabloids in running anecdotes, dripping with an ‘I told you so’ self-righteousness – ‘Anti-vaxxer, dies from Covid’ and ‘Anonymous, agonising parent says her child was bullied at school for having the vaccine.’ On the global scale, it ran in April with headlines such as ‘The system has collapsed’: India’s descent into Covid hell’ accompanied by stock photos of burning pyres of the dead. In fact, the images reflected only the traditional Hindu response to the end of mortality. After two days the Guardian conspicuously forgot about India. The sub-continent’s purpose was served.
The Guardian, the BBC and all profess not a word about the suppression of competing interpretations of the pandemic offered up by a diversity of alternative media sources. Evidently, anyone disputing the mainstream narrative, whatever their prestigious medical credentials or their biography of intellectual integrity is to be contemptuously dismissed as an anti-vaxxer or conspiracy theorist. It matters not that they are neither. The slander is sufficient. Depressingly, leading lights of the Left such as Owen Jones and Paul Mason define dissent as dangerous, even calling for the closing down of criticism. Meanwhile, the unelected, corporate arbiters of truth at Facebook or Google can censor any opinion at odds with the status quo without a questioning murmur. The Guardian, self-styled independent and investigative, remains silent. On April 23, 2020, OFCOM, the UK’s communications regulatory body issued the instruction that health claims contrary to the government’s policies should be perceived as harmful. The censorship is excused by the deeply contrary notion of ‘misinformation’. No such sense of contradiction can be found in the launch in the USA of Good Information Inc by ‘progressive’ billionaires Reid Hoffman, George Soros, and others. The public benefit corporation, led by former Democratic Party strategist, Tara McGowan will fund new media companies and efforts that cut through echo chambers with fact-based information. Presumably with a straight face and without a hint of doubt McGowan says that ‘the group’s goal in the next year is to raise more awareness about immediate solutions to counter disinformation before it spreads.
Embedding ‘Covid-safe’ behaviours into people’s everyday routines will require a coordinated programme to shape the financial, physical, and social infrastructure in the United Kingdom. Education, regulation, communications, and social marketing, and provision of resources will be required to ensure that all sections of society have the capability, opportunity, and motivation to enact the behaviours long term.[my emphasis]
Michie is quoted widely as stating in a June interview that face coverings and social distancing should become permanent. Much has been made of her four decades-long membership of the British Communist Party. For those of us with a communist disposition, inspired by the young Marx, by Pannekoek, by CLR James, by Castoriadis, by Kropotkin and Bakunin, the vision’s corruption by its all-too understandable connection with the parties of that name is always frustrating. In essence, she is a ‘soft’ Stalinist, a technocrat and social engineer, utterly comfortable with knowing what is best for us. Hers is a bureaucratic collectivism. It is of significance that, starved of the elixir of militancy and clutching at straws, the Left as a whole has been seduced by her top-down version of ‘nudged’ solidarity. The orchestrated Clap For Carers, the apparent widespread adoption of masking has been interpreted as a prefigurative philanthropic expression of class struggle. I am less than convinced. For my part, I have come across, amongst others, the seriously scared, the pragmatic, ‘best comply or I’ll be fined’ and the misanthropic maskaloholics, who see the worst in all of us. Perhaps I’m not seeing the house for the bricks but I’ve not detected much political energy in the compliant. If I get to Part Five I’ll try to tangle with the crucial issues of what we might mean in this tumult by notions of solidarity and resistance.
Michie’s report follows the contemporary mantra ‘that till everyone is safe no one is safe’, which begs more than a few questions. For example, is it possible to be truly alive and fearful of existence? The goal though is to render the desired risk-free behaviour Normal, Easy, Attractive and Routine [NEAR]. There is much fashionable, shallow talk in the report of co-creation and co-production but only if you agree to the behavioural necessities in advance. In reality, the strategy will be delivered through a partnership between the state and corporations, who will deliver and monitor the desired changes in our individual and collective behaviour.
Susan Michie’s politics and ambitions are in tune with the desires of the Great Reset I touched on in Part One of these musings – the passage towards a global-led technocratic and surveillance capitalism. I have little doubt she supports the proposal that some form of global governance has to be achieved, a medium of control requiring ‘scientific’ regulation and a central role for experts. I have every expectation that she will be invited to speak about her research at the next Davos summit.
As I pen the last few words of this cry of concern about the insidious and insistent influence of behaviourism on our lives, the mainstream media continues to collude with its compulsory agenda of anxiety, After all, during the pandemic, the UK government has become its primary source of funding, hand in hand with Big Pharma sponsorship. Once more balanced reporting about the ‘experimental’ vaccines is shunned. In short the media’s unquestioning support for a vaccination programme from almost cradle to grave serves to deepen the divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, the latter collapsed into the reprehensible, even sinister category of ‘anti-vaxxers’. I will look more closely at the contentious medical issues raised in Part Four. For the moment the ‘othering’ of those, who for legitimate, informed and thoughtful reasons decline vaccination is deeply disturbing. The enemy is indeed within. It is one another. The SAGE group’s campaign of fear has willfully disregarded the British Psychological Society [BPS] code of ethics. In her formidable book, A State of Fear. Laura Dodsworth draws attention to Gary Sidley, a psychologist, who has challenged the BPS without success. In worrying about the tactics used by SAGE and the implications for our children and grandchildren, he says:
I don’t want to think about that really. It’s not a good place. There is something distinctive about using fear to get people to conform which is so distasteful and ethically unacceptable. Fear impacts on every aspect of our being.
In reality, behaviourism has no such qualms. It spreads its strangulating tentacles worldwide, confident in its certainty and immune to considerations of ethics or politics. It will serve authoritarianism, whatever its ideological hue. To take but the British incarnation the Behavioural Insights Team [BIT], affectionately or otherwise known as the Nudge Unit, initiated by David Cameron in 2010. According to Dodsworth, the Nudge Unit is ‘now a profit-making social purpose limited company with offices in London, Manchester, Paris, New York, Singapore, Sydney, Wellington and Toronto. It has run more than 750 projects and in 2019 alone worked in 31 countries. It has conducted over 1000 workshops for governments around the world, training 20,000 civil servants in behavioural insights.’
If anything it is the debilitating influence of these pseudo-scientific experts that ought to render us fearful rather than cheerful. They are nothing but the purveyors of official propaganda, the enemies of democracy and of the open, argumentative education that creates critical citizens.
By knowing how people think we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them their families and Society [Thaler and Sunstein  ‘Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness]]
.We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
― Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928
A passionate riposte is demanded. Bernays’ rationalisation of the status quo refused. We will not be moulded and manipulated. We reject their assumed authority. We are not puppets, the playthings of the powerful. We will decide together in questioning dialogue with one another, what is best for us, our families and society. We commit ourselves to the struggle for an authentic democracy.
[Part Four will examine the medical evidence, whilst Part Five will explore in relation to the pandemic, the slide to authoritarianism and the shift to technocratic capitalism the questions of agency and resistance.]
In looking at the pandemic from an economic and political perspective I will proceed from what might be seen as the ABC of a critical analysis.
It is necessary to ground what we are looking at in the specific circumstances of the time.
In doing so we should be mindful also of the historical context if this seems pertinent and we might allow ourselves a speculation about the future if appropriate.
Additionally we must situate the phenomenon being scrutinised in the power relations of society. Cui bono? Whose interests are served by the way in which the object of our concern is characterized; by the way in which governments respond; by the way in which the people respond and so on?
My starting point is both simple and profound. The COVID-19 pandemic expresses first and foremost a crisis of capitalism’s health, much less so a crisis of our individual and collective physical health. I shall seek to give substance to this assertion which if true has enormous consequences both for our day-to-day existence and the ongoing struggle to create an autonomous and democratic society.
As for weighing up what’s going on in 2021, I’ll go back no further historically than the Second World War. I acknowledge the following sketch is rough and ready but it’s no more than a starter for a critical exchange of views.I wonder if such a proposal to be argumentative makes any sense in these dualist and censorious times.
The Social-Democratic Consensus
As the war came to an end the capitalist class was afeard. Talk of radical and revolutionary change hung in the acrid air. To retain their overall control they conceded the following:
An acceptance of the mixed economy, public and private cooperation, the nationalisation of basic utilities – water, electricity and so on.
An agreement that the leaders of the working class should have a seat at the table,
A recognition of the value of universal free education, social and health care.
However grudging, an allowance that the individual, the social and the political are inextricably intertwined.
The Neoliberal Fightback
Thirty years later influential sections of the ruling class were increasingly unhappy about the post-war social contract. Certainly, they were concerned to restore their share of the profits but were also deeply troubled by the growing pressure exerted by working-class militancy and the rise of the social movements demanding equality and justice. To retain their control they set in motion a counter-offensive. Its cornerstones were:
A rejection of the mixed economy and an explicit commitment to the primacy of the ‘free’ market as being the ultimate expression of what is good for everyone, rich or poor.
The utter necessity to undermine the autonomous organisation of the working class and the social movements, exemplified by the 1984/85 violent assault on the National Union of Mineworkers and the softer seduction of leaders and activists from the women’s, black and gay movements into managerial roles serving the neoliberal project.
The launch of an extraordinarily ambitious social engineering project designed to alter our very personalities; to privatise our existence, turning us in on ourselves as individuals and away from collective understandings of our situations; to see ourselves as passive consumers rather than active citizens.
Neoliberalism in crisis
The 2008 banking collapse served notice that the neoliberal economic model was broken. An opportunity of resistance beckoned. In the marginal world of youth work, I argued that we should reassert youth work as open, volatile and voluntary in opposition to the increasingly taken-for-granted closed, imposed, scripted version – youth work as intuition rather than youth work by numbers.
On the broader front, significant protest raged across the world but it was fragmented and largely contained. Nevertheless, the ruling class was shaken and stirred. Across the next decade, it was forced to act pragmatically, bailing out the banks with a massive infusion of ‘public’ money, whilst trying to work out a longer-term strategy that served its interests and maintained its power. The sticking plaster of quantitative easing hid the reality of unsustainable debt, the austerity-imposed immiseration of millions and the obscenity of the rich getting ever richer.
The United Nations poverty adviser, Philp Alston compared contemporary Tory policy to that which had created the workhouses of the nineteenth century. Research undertaken at the University of Bristol led by David Gordon illustrated that in the UK [population 69 million] 18 million people could not afford adequate housing; 12 million were too poor to engage in many forms of social activity; whilst 4 million children and adults were not fed properly. However, austerity was not too austere for the richest 1,000 in the UK, who increased their wealth by 60 billion pounds in a single year, 2017/18.
My guess is that from a ruling class perspective these themes have dominated their many extravagant meetings in snowy Swiss or sunny Mediterranean resorts.
A compelling shift to believing that some form of global governance had to be achieved. The vision would require ‘scientific’ regulation, a central role for experts and the obedience of the senior management representing compliant states.
Hindering such a sweeping move would be nation-states with notions of autonomy and democracy itself, even in its limited representative guise, along with dissident collectives and dangerous maverick individuals.
How might an alienated population, exhausted from work, deprived of work, retired from work be persuaded to go along with a major restructuring of social relations in favour of the powerful at the expense of the powerless?
Towards a global-led technocratic and surveillance capitalism
The reference group for grasping the strategic thinking of the powerful in a period of profound social, political and economic crisis is the World Economic Forum [WEF], which in its own words is “the global platform for public-private cooperation, of partnerships between businessmen, politicians, intellectuals and other leaders of society to define, discuss and advance key issues on the global agenda.” On board amongst many are Amazon, Google, Facebook, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Chase, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations – all powerhouses on the international scene – not to mention the World Health Organisation and International Monetary Fund.
Somewhat in passing I find it intriguing that to comment on the intimate social connections between these corporations is often now dismissed as a sign of that neurotic condition, ‘conspiritatis’. Similarly it is seen almost as a cheap trick to pursue the money, to scrutinise the financial chicanery of these shakers and movers. When, to my mind, these avenues of inquiry are the basis of investigative journalism and social research, of speaking truth to power, if you will forgive such a hackneyed phrase.
To return to the question of the elite’s thinking, sections within its ranks have long felt that some sort of global overview of the social, political and economic order was necessary. To take but one example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, later Jimmy Carter’s Security Advisor, in his 1970 book ‘Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era’. wrote:
“The technetronic era involves the gradual appearance of a more controlled society. Such a society would be dominated by an elite, unrestrained by traditional values. Soon it will be possible to assert almost continuous surveillance over every citizen and maintain up-to-date complete files containing even the most personal information about the citizen. These files will be subject to instantaneous retrieval by the authorities.”
“The nation-state as a fundamental unit of man’s organized life has ceased to be the principal creative force: International banks and multinational corporations are acting and planning in terms that are far in advance of the political concepts of the nation-state”
This globalising technology-led tendency has gathered pace in the last decade with the WEF at the forefront of proceedings. The following are but a few quotes from Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum contained in his 2016 book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
“Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies are truly disruptive—they upend existing ways of sensing, calculating, organizing, acting and delivering. They represent entirely new ways of creating value for organizations and citizens”.
“Sooner than most anticipate, the work of professions as different as lawyers, financial analysts, doctors, journalists, accountants, insurance underwriters or librarians may be partly or completely automated…”
“Drones represent a new type of cost-cutting employee working among us and performing jobs that once involved real people”
“Already, advances in neurotechnologies and biotechnologies are forcing us to question what it means to be human”
We are at the threshold of a radical systemic change that requires human beings to adapt continuously. As a result, we may witness an increasing degree of polarization in the world, marked by those who embrace change versus those who resist it.
Enter the Pandemic
Whether the consequence of zoonotic transfer or laboratory leak, the COVID-19 virus has failed to live up to the catastrophic expectations of half a million deaths in the UK based on Neil Ferguson’s discredited computer modelling. It was never the 21st century version of the Black Death. Indeed WEF’s Kurt Schwab and Thierry Malleret in a book, The Great Reset, published in July 2020, allow that COVID-19 is “one of the least deadly pandemics the world has experienced over the last 2000 years”, adding that “the consequences of COVID-19 in terms of health and mortality will be mild compared to previous pandemics”.
Nevertheless they cannot contain their delight at the opportunities opened up by its emergence.
“It is our defining moment”, “Many things will change forever”. “A new world will emerge”. “The societal upheaval unleashed by COVID-19 will last for years, and possibly generations”. “Many of us are pondering when things will return to normal. The short response is: never”.
“The pandemic is clearly exacerbating and accelerating geopolitical trends that were already apparent before the crisis erupted”.
Amongst the themes running dizzily through their excitement are:
The crucial need for the financial sector, together with the corporate, technological and pharmaceutical giants, to be the enlightened leadership of the way forward in tackling the world’s problems. “The combined market value of the leading tech companies hit record after record during the lockdowns, even rising back above levels before the outbreak started… this phenomenon is unlikely to abate any time soon, quite the opposite”.
The necessity of digitally transforming our private and public existence, whether through shopping, via a shift to on-line banking; on-line education, tele-medicine or even e-sport “Online banking interactions have risen to 90 percent during the crisis, from 10 percent, with no drop-off in quality and an increase in compliance.”;“In the summer of 2020, the direction of the trend seems clear: the world of education, like for so many other industries, will become partly virtual”; “The necessity to address the pandemic with any means available (plus, during the outbreak, the need to protect health workers by allowing them to work remotely) removed some of the regulatory and legislative impediments related to the adoption of telemedicine”;“For a while, social distancing may constrain the practice of certain sports, which will in turn benefit the ever-more powerful expansion of e-sports. Tech and digital are never far away!”
The requirement that our physical and psychological presence on earth is subject to the policing and surveillance of what we do and what we think – see also Shoshanna Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’. In the wake of the lockdowns, vaccine passports, physical muzzling and ideological censorship, I’ll visit the biosecurity state and freedom of thought and movement in Part Three.
The demand that we speed up becoming identifiable, immunised, traceable, card-carrying, cash-less consumers.“The current imperative to propel, no matter what, the ‘contactless economy’ and the subsequent willingness of regulators to speed it up means that there are no holds barred
These developments are revealing but leave unanswered a nagging question, why would the ruling class, hardly noted for its humanity, close down society in the name of our common good? Back in the twentieth century Castoriadis warned against the illusion of ‘perpetual production and ceaseless consumption’, which as it is shattered will invite the rise of authoritarianism. More immediately, in the midst of the pandemic itself, Fabio Vighi ponders “why the usually unscrupulous ruling elites decide to freeze the global profit-making machine in the face of a pathogen that targets almost exclusively the unproductive, the over 80s?”
Given there is precious little evidence that lockdowns have been the compelling riposte to the virus, it is intriguing to follow Vighi’s line of thought.
Above all lockdowns were imposed because the financial markets were yet again collapsing. In order to rescue the markets with another massive injection of cash the real economy had to be halted, everyday business transactions and the need for credit postponed. In this way capitalism buys time as it seeks to revive itself. Such a holding tactic is likely to be played again – see the constant references to new variants, unexpected emergencies. In this stuttering scenario one winner is without doubt Big Pharma. The sickly pharmaceutical giants, whose profits were waning, have been given a new lease of life via the oxygen of public funds provided to develop and then purchase the vaccines.
Reinventing itself is an utter necessity for capitalism as the old certainties disappear. Workers are thrown out of the workforce as automation takes over and increasingly they cannot find a way back into the fold of employment. In general the mass of the population will slide into relative debt and poverty. A chilling question surfaces, to what extent is a significant part of the working and middle classes surplus to requirements?
When push comes to shove the measures taken to counter the pandemic are part of necessary paradigm shift if capitalism is to survive. The taken-for-granted model of endless production and consumption, of inexorable economic progress is heading for compulsory redundancy. Vighi comments that as of now, “ capitalism is increasingly dependent on public debt, low wages, centralisation of wealth and power, a permanent state of emergency and financial acrobatics.”
As for the future it smells dystopian. The WEF’s economic and political programme, the nightmare of stakeholder capitalism or more aptly technocratic neo-feudal capitalism, is a regime of rule by experts. It disdains democracy. It spurns the active, critical citizen. It prefers we settle for being contemporary serfs, obedient and grateful. If you think I exaggerate, look around at the compliance of so many, not least amongst the professional classes, during a manufactured pandemic.
In part Three I will visit the State of Fear created by a toxic mix of company-bound scientists and stenographers disguised as journalists – ‘the’ Science and the supine mass media.
Across the period of the pandemic, I have scribbled a host of responses in an effort to shed light on what has been going on. They have slid surreptitiously into my computer’s bottom drawer or spiralled away embarrassed into the hidden mists of the Cloud. However, I’m provoked to retrieve them. I do think we are living through a pivotal historical moment. It feels better to be wrong than be silent. The title of this post, ‘Searching for Understanding in the face of Power and Propaganda’, makes obvious my conflict with the endlessly circulated mainstream narrative. I will try to give substance to this discord in the hope that it’s possible to debate rather than declaim.
This first post is personal and biographical. It seeks to illustrate, amongst other things, why from the very beginning of the pandemic the leading role played by behavioural science set my dentures on edge. It will become plain why I was thus rattled.
It was a meeting out of the blue that woke me with a start and saw me climbing into the Cloud to rescue my thoughts. A few weeks ago, in the heaving embrace of a maskless Cretan taverna, I hugged and kissed a very dear friend, who I hadn’t seen since the authoritarian lockdown on association and expression was imposed, almost 18 months ago. The hubbub hardly lent itself to thoughtful conversation. Yet as we shook our heads in unison about the manufactured melodrama, within which we were playing our part, the question hung in the nocturnal, perfumed air, ‘Why?’
The morning after, my head clearing, I felt obliged to answer the question for myself, if nobody else. In trying to unravel ‘why?’ I won’t focus immediately on the nature of the virus itself, the deaths, the cost of lockdowns and so on. Such a necessary encounter will come later. For now I’m just trying to get my head around why I was suspicious about the pandemic from the very outset.
I will begin with a couple of truisms.
Firstly, across history, the first commandment of the ruling class in any epoch has been the retention of its power, the maintenance of its control over the majority, almost at whatever cost. Yet I would venture that even at the height of its hubris the elite has displayed a certain psychological insecurity, afraid of its own shadow, the people it dominates. In response, the powerless, the exploited and the oppressed have been forced to accommodate or resist or indeed to do both, most times unaware of their rulers’ fragility. From time to time, thank goodness, the ruling class has been ousted or where would we be now?
Secondly, societies, simple or sophisticated, have sought to socialise their members into an acceptance of and adherence to a set of dominant values and norms. Overwhelmingly these rules were imposed from above, for example, the Monarchy, the Church or the State. Cornelius Castoriadis defined such societies as heteronomous, closed societies of obedience. Insofar as there has been a period of exception in the West, this began in the 17th century with the Enlightenment, the ceaseless questioning of the status quo and was inspired by the struggle for democracy, the clash between the working classes and their masters in the 19th and 20th centuries. Castoriadis dubbed this self-conscious, critical and collective activity, ‘the project of autonomy’. Thirty years ago he worried that the project had stalled. He suggested that there were increasing signs of a retreat into heteronomy, the abandonment of a radical, improvisatory vision of another world being possible, a flight from the struggle for an authentic democracy.
In retrospect, I wonder tentatively if I was born into what might be viewed as a promising but ultimately frustrating, even worryingly final period in the project’s progress, the post-1945 settlement between Capital and Labour. On my way in 1958 to being an upwardly mobile working-class young man, the culture of my grammar school was more open than closed, rich rather than poor in its choices. An English teacher, I loved, ran an after-school Music Appreciation Society, procured for us free tickets to the Halle Symphony Orchestra’s concerts and directed us in a performance of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’, a tableau of extracts from Shakespeare’s works with musical interludes. Meanwhile, a physics teacher, who was a famous international rugby player, found time to encourage me in my eccentric desire to be a successful race walker. Even my disastrous GCE results proved not to be the end of the world. I managed to get a place at a Teacher Training College and flourished in its welcoming, student-centred, liberal climate, strutting the stage as president of the Dramatic Society and representing the college in all manner of sports. I began to find my voice intellectually, even if it sounded through literary rather than political criticism. Whatever my political naivete in those days I always felt stimulated as well as manipulated. Does this marry today with the experience of a working-class lass or lad entering Higher Education?
Of course, my picture of the past is too pretty by far, brush-stroking away contradictions and inconsistencies at a personal and societal level. My first teaching post in a Church of England primary school witnessed a tense relationship with other members of staff, who thought I was far too friendly with the children, threatening the disciplinary ethos of the institution. Yet the gentle headmaster, who did still contrarily and occasionally use a ruler on ‘naughty’ children’s legs, allowed me full rein to teach as I thought fit. As indeed did the Council’s Education Department with a charismatic Director at the helm. He was determined that every child should have a rounded educational experience so schools vibrated in time with the arts, music and outdoor education, encouraged by an abundance of specialist advisers and teachers. When I moved into youth work my centre housed the Department’s very own challenging and controversiall theatre group. You must beware my rose-tinted spectacles. What I am sure of is that this was a period within which there was trust and faith in an open and improvisatory educational process. As best as I remember the words outcome and impact never passed our pursed lips.
Certainly, the 1970s, a decade of discontent and dissension, were the years of my political awakening and my conscious commitment to the project of autonomy, which at the time I would have called the struggle for socialism. Through youth work, I discovered humanistic psychology in its Rogerian variant. Through my growing political activity, I discovered Marxism, Anarchism and Feminism. All these influences in differing and imperfect ways were expressions of the struggle for an autonomous society, within which in concert with one another the people, and no one else, make the laws by which they [we] live. This was no academic experience. It was to be part of the passionate social movements of the time, sometimes at one, sometimes at odds with each other, which looked to develop in theory and practice the inextricably intertwined politics of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability. However, as I moved in and out of the worlds of youth work and political activism I was often dismayed by the crude judgements made about other human beings, whether as individuals or in groups. The person-centred psychology I advanced was devoid of politics. The politics I pursued was psychologically bereft. The task seemed plain – to bring politics into psychology and vice-versa.
In this context, Marilyn Taylor and I began to explore what might be a radical psychology that situated the unique individual and her actions within the matrix of social relations not of her choosing. From the beginning, our effort was plagued by behaviourism in its day-to-day ‘common-sense’ form and by behaviourism’s scientific pretension, its desire to create a theory of personality and human activity, good for all times, all places and all people. In both its amateur and professional manifestations on its best behaviour, it tends simplistically to know what is right or wrong, always confident it knows what is best for others. It nudges us to do its bidding. It is judgemental and disinterested in context or history. It generalises and categorises. At a theoretical level behavioural psychology posits the preposterous notion of a general individual, who floats above the messy complex reality of social relations. Hence the targets for its manipulation are always groups of undifferentiated human beings, for example, youth defined as a homogeneous category or, for that matter, the population of the United KIngdom in March 2020.
As neoliberalism in the late 1970s became economically paramount, behavourism became its favoured ideological tool. In 1981 whilst defending the notion of an holistic social education approach within youth work I criticised the Manpower Service Commission’s promotion of instrumental Social and Life Skills Training for young people, the arena of so-called Youth Opportunities. In an arcane turn of phrase I charged the MSC with desiring nothing less than ‘the behavioural modification of the young proletariat’. Getting on for three decades later I felt able to resurrect the charge.
Possessing no vision of a world beyond the present New Labour has been obsessed with the micro-management of problematic, often demonised youth. Yearning for a generation stamped with the State’s seal of approval the government has transformed Youth Work into an agency of behavioural modification. It wishes to confine to the scrapbook of history the idea that Youth Work is volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees.
Neoliberalism seems a broken economic model. However its ideology, the values and ideas it has promoted across three decades, remains hegemonic, ‘the common-sense of our age’ (Hall, 2011). Few remain untouched by a behavioural modification project conducted on the grandest scale, the manufacturing of a possessive and self-centred, satisfied yet never satiated, consumer for whom a notion of the common good is almost blasphemous. Individuals are forced to deal with the social problems outsourced by the state – of poverty, health, housing and indeed education. As for the last of these, neoliberal ideology is instrumental and reductive, deeply suspicious of critical thinking. Teachers teach to test, lecturers cram consumers and, as we shall see, youth workers are led by outcomes.
In July 2012 the Young Foundation produced a Framework of Outcomes for Young People, which sought to bring under manners the volatile world of informal youth work via the introduction of ‘measurable’ outcomes and impact. Marilyn and I wrote a rejoinder, within which we noted:
The die is cast immediately. The product of the framework is to be the ’emotionally resilient’ young individual, who through the planned interventions of youth workers, will shrug their shoulders at adversity. Utterly in tune with government policy this manufactured individual will have less need for public services such as health and social welfare and will be willing to work for whatever wages, zero-hour contracts or indeed benefits are on offer. This is the self-centred, compliant young person of neo-liberalism’s dreams. The last thing such an obedient cipher would do is to ask, “how come this is happening to me, my mates, to thousands of others?” Nowhere in the Framework is there an acknowledgement that to talk of personal change demands an engagement with the social and political circumstances underpinning young people’s lives.
Remarkably the Framework’s fix on young people takes us back half a century. Throughout its pages young people are viewed as a homogeneous category – young people are young people are young people. The young person is denied his or her class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. Despite all the talk about the individual in the Framework the individual described is that theoretical monstrosity, the general individual, who in reality does not exist. It is as if the gains of the late twentieth century in understanding the social individual never occurred. For example a working-class black young woman does not experience the world in exactly the same way as a white middle-class young woman and so on. And indeed the individual working-class black young woman herself can never be reduced to a general expression of her own social grouping. Comprehending the individual is no simple matter.
Indeed I spoke to this critique at several youth work seminars and conferences within the UK , Europe and, even to my delight, Brisbane in Australia, the last of these at Plymouth in 2017. The analysis struck a chord with many who were led to apologise for not singing along. With sadness they advised that there was no option but to chant from the behaviourist hymn sheet or risk losing their place in the choir. As for the behavioural choir leaders they thanked me for composing an alternative tune, pinched a well-pitched note or two and continued to coach the enforced collective rendition of their mechanistic melody. Like it or not, and I didn’t, I returned from such gatherings, heavy of heart. Words were not wounding the confidence of the behaviourists. And on the ground, willing or unwilling, practitioners complied, appealing to each other for the latest in prescribed scripts and recommended tools.
Today, the voices in English youth work emanating from such as the National Youth Agency and the Centre for Youth Impact reflect the watchwords of the so-called ‘third culture’ -‘no politics, no conflict, no ideology, simply science, delivery and problem-solving’. The apolitical hypocrisy on display is par for the course, hardly troubling anyone anymore.
In this context, the dominance of the behavourists and fading resistance to their stranglehold, I had all but withdrawn, to my shame, from the fray. I had been involved in a running battle with a dehumanising opponent, who was well ahead on points. In the last year I’ve written just one piece, Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity, which, a single reply apart, did not take seed in parched pastures. Rightly or wrongly I felt isolated, even indulgently sorry for myself. Castoriadis’ concern seemed increasingly pertinent. An arrogant technocratic and managerial outlook prevailed. Intuition, compassion and love exiled.
In the early months of 2020 the dramatic arrival upon the scene of a virus said to be an existential threat to humanity jolted me from my malaise. From the begining I was deeply sceptical about the remarkable overnight unity of 198 countries in following the unelected World Health Organisation’s declaration of a pandemic and the blanket adoption of the same narrative by politicians and the mainstream media across the world. Perhaps it was merely a matter of coincidence.
In particular, given the above diatribe on the dangers of behaviourism, I was alarmed by the central role being played in the UK by the initially anonymous Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours [SPI-B]. The group was charged with providing ‘behavioural science advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical and epiemiological experts’. I bridled at the messages contained in the paper, ‘Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures’, March 22, 2020. Within its pages the group asserted that ‘a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently threatened’. Hence ‘the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased amongst those who are complacent using hard=hitting emotional messages’. Thus did a political, unethical and undemocratic campaign of fear begin. I was fearful – not of the virus but of the authoritarianism at the heart of of the SPI-B’s propaganda.
As it was my critical stance did not lead immediately to the renaissance of a sense of solidarity with others, even good friends and comrades – far from it. Slowly, as I delved further into the dilemmas posed, I did discover new collective reference points, some unimaginable a few years ago. These will become apparent. In parts Two, Three and Four I will tangle with some of the tensions underpinning the divisions created by the pandemic. In part Two I will offer my best understanding of the political and economic aspects of the pandemic; in part Three I will look more closely at the propaganda of fear, which still continues; in part Four I’ll explore the suppressed conflicts of medical and epidemiological opinion; and, if I get this far, in part Five I will ponder what resistance and solidarity might now mean.
Across my working life I spent a significant amount of time being responsible for youth, adult and community work, even if the latter was more often honoured in the breach than the observance. Whilst Wigan’s Youth and Community Officer in the 1990s I struggled vainly to resist the undermining of Adult Education by the Further Education Funding Council, whose instrumental ideology demanded that classes and courses should be vocational or else. In this context it is sobering and revealing to read Doug Nicholl’s overview of the neoliberal assault on the rich and radical tradition of life-long learning as a whole.
Lifelong learning – dead.
Only publicly funded places of learning, communities of exploration, can instil the excitement to think critically and assimilate knowledge and provide the personal support needed to develop.
Virtual search engines are no substitute for the real investment in real people in real institutions engaging together in a community of learning from birth to old age. Useful knowledge may be gained from a random google or Wikipedia search, but the discovery of truth and real understanding are skills accrued and nurtured with others.
It is an organised presence of educators at every stage of life from pre-school to retirement years that can make lifelong learning a lived reality.
The building of lifelong learning resources and methods has a wonderful history in Britain. Practitioners and academics, local councils and voluntary organisations, trade unions and community groups, sometimes separately, sometimes together, always on very meagre budgets, created in most areas, the architecture of cradle to the grave learning provision.
Sure start and other early years provision sowed seeds. Play work nurtured the growing mind in beautiful ways. Youth work, also a British pioneering methodology, engaged and promoted young people in an empowering and much underestimated way. Community development work involved and educated often the most beleaguered and brought social coherence and social justice, hope and joy.
Adult education, arising originally from a long tradition of democratic practice in dissenting churches, brought us the opportunity not just to have second chances to learn, but to transform our lives and thereby our world. In the workplace, intense exploitation and discrimination and brutal working conditions would be more prevalent today were it not for generations of trade unionists learning negotiating moves, but importantly too, history, politics, economics and philosophy.
In terms of funding these strands of lifelong learning were always seen as Cinderella services. In reality their widespread popularity and effectiveness in developing confidence and capability put them at the forefront of advanced pedagogies.
I am using the past tense. The lifelong learning house has been pulled down. Only isolated pockets of excellent practice, largely unsupported by the state, and funded on something far more precarious than a shoe string, now seek to keep alive what were once internationally pioneering services and educational interventions throughout life.
A requiem for Coleg Harlech was produced as a documentary last year. This was a dynamic place that brought so much education to those who had had too little, the premises were sold off. Unfortunately there will be more property developers looking at the remaining English adult residential colleges. A new unfair government funding regime has already seen the iconic Ruskin College end its residential offer to students. This is representative of a new, deep assault on the best of adult learning opportunities and the Labour and community movement links behind them.
Most people do not go to university and relative to our life span and the number of hours in the day, we spend little time at school. Lifelong learning services have been the main provider of education for our people for generations. It’s where most of the learning linked to enlightenment, collective action and social purpose has taken place, and where some of our greatest educators have worked and the environment where some of our keenest intellects have been created. Not to mention some very important community and political leaders.
Lifelong learning opportunities have disappeared and now two relatively small yet extremely impactful and important components of the national offer are up for the chop. The government has proposed to end its funding of trade union learning despite its demonstrable success in delivering the upskilling agenda.
But I want to draw attention here to the imminent, potential complete demise, of adult residential education.
University is not for everyone so for over a hundred years trade unions, co-operative organisations, the Labour Party, faith groups, community organisations and educational associations have found ways of creating residential learning opportunities for adults. This has provided a range of options from essential skills development, preparation for university, specialist higher education courses, short residential programmes, community leadership training and so on.
Just as some have their public schools and elite universities, so we, the majority, have had our special places of useful and inspiring learning. The founders of Ruskin deliberately built this in Oxford, not just to give students access to the Bodleian library, but to ensure women and men from the UK and all around the world exercised their rights to access the best learning environment.
Unions, community networks and churches would pay for members to go to colleges like Ruskin, Hillcroft, Northern, and Fircroft. Miners, steel workers, shop workers, railway workers, you name it, they would get an education because of their union giving them grants to spend two or three years growing through learning.
My own organisation funded particularly women to go to Ruskin as long ago as the 1940s. And many went from there to University, including the dreaming spires, and most came back to serve trade unions, community organisations, governments, political parties or caring professions like social work. I can think easily of many leading academics today who came through this route too.
As the quality of education was so good tens of thousands of students from overseas came to Ruskin and returned home in some cases to lead their countries. At least one British Prime Minister, Clem Attlee, was a Ruskin tutor.
Residential provision not only gave time and space to learn how to learn for those who had left school at the youngest age and been rejected by formal learning, it gave a welcoming environment with colleagues from all over the world to broaden horizons and enjoy cultural and academic variety to stimulate the imagination.
Special debates and initiatives could be held in the safe exploratory spaces of these colleges and many examples can be given, but at Ruskin we celebrated recently the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Womens’ Liberation Movement there. We also celebrated last year our 120th anniversary and many moving stories of personal transformation from over the years were shared.
Pedagogically the adult residential experience was exceptional as many detailed studies have revealed, most recently by Professors Sharon Clancy and John Holford in their report. Economically, like all its relatives in the other strands of lifelong learning, adult residential education represented champagne at lemonade prices as all cost benefit research reports have shown as John Schifferes showed.
The adult residential financial settlements, previously agreed by Ministers of all stripes, who appreciated the vital role the Specialist Designated Institutions, as they are referred to in the Further and Higher Education Act, were never generous, but adequate. The formulae that underpinned them, agreed at the time by Ministers, seems to have been forgotten by the notoriously forgetful Department for Education, and new rules have been introduced which, for the main provider at least, have led to the closure of residential provision altogether.
Not only that, the current government is seeking to claw back spending from previous years in such a way as to prevent any future growth or sustainability. They are trying it feels to force complete closure and the remodelling of specialist designated institutions into merged FE providers. Punishment is being meted out for providing education (the quality of which Ofsted have consistently applauded) to students who would have had no other chance.
Such manoeuvres fly in the face of the most significant report on adult education for a hundred years published last year under the stewardship of Dame Helen Ghosh, The Centenary Report into Adult Education. They ignore too the report by Dame Mary Ney reviewing college financial oversight where she says the ESFA and FEC should take a more nurturing and developmental, supportive approach.
Adult education, as even the 1919 national Adult Education Committee report said, is a permanent national necessity. Moves afoot now are closing its vital residential component just at the time when all those residential providers are at the front line of supporting some of the most significant initiatives to retrain redundant workers, and reskill others keen to be at the heart of building back better.
The pattern is clear: destroy education and institutions designed to create new generations of Labour Movement leaders.
Fittingly this commemorative post appears on the 150th Anniversary of the Paris Commune. Malcolm would have been honoured.
Malcolm Ball [1959-2021], dearest friend and comrade: Rest in Power
“ It seems to me” [Malcolm Ball]
“ We do not have any Book to recommend whose reading would exempt one from having to seek the truth for oneself” [Cornelius Castoriadis]
“To do nothing and grumble and not to act – that is throwing one’s life away” [William Morris]
Our journey together began one evening on the Scraptoft campus of the Leicester Polytechnic sometime in 1983. Since that chance moment, our odyssey has been inextricably intertwined. Malcolm was a fresh-faced student on the Youth and Community course. I had been invited to speak to an article I had written, ‘Anti-sexist youth work with young men’, a fumbling effort to respond to the vital issues raised by increasingly confident feminist youth workers. At the end, Malcolm approached me, inquisitive and challenging in exploring what I’d been trying to say. Above all, he stressed his admiration and support for the provisional nature of my thoughts. He ventured that my self-effacing claim, ‘this is my best understanding for now’ was, as he put it, ‘blindin’. Within a few weeks as our friendship blossomed I realised that Malcolm’s version of my cautionary caveat was the succinct preface, ‘it seems to me’. This turn of phrase delivered in his soft, sometimes hardly audible Deptford accent echoes across the four decades of our comradeship.
In the ensuing years, we spent a lot of time together on trains, in cars and on foot. Our conversations were dominated by our political allegiance, a desire to play a part albeit small in changing the world. Interestingly we never applied political labels to one another, even though, my Marxism saw me in and out of political parties and sects for quite some time. Malcolm was a freer spirit, resisting the safety afforded by signing up to an ideology. Ironically his agnosticism meant that on demonstrations he was warmly welcomed by friends from across the political spectrum. This said, sometimes enough was enough. I remember a NALGO Broad Left meeting in the early 1990s where its Socialist Worker Party leadership argued we were on the brink of insurrection. In welcoming such a historical moment Malcolm asked cheekily, ‘in that case where are the Kalishnakovs?’ In support, I ventured that my village cricket team’s committee was infinitely better run than the Broad Left itself. Lacking both firearms and organisation we expressed our fear that we might well mess up the opportunity to overthrow the State. We were ignored by the stern-faced platform but congratulated by those in the hall with a sense of humour and a grip on reality.
Central to Malcolm’s politics was a faith in the power of collective activity from below. His story is one of creative involvement in a succession of diverse social and political groupings. To give you a taste in roughly chronological order.
In Leicester in the 80s we formed a Community Education Workers support group with the embarrassing acronym, SYRUP, together with the mandatory membership of the ‘Dirty Thirty’ Miners Support Group. As Malcolm would reflect later the year 1984/85 was one of a vibrant popular education, of which we were privileged to be a part.
Within the Community Youth Workers Union, he became a key member of the Socialist Caucus, which became a thorn in the side of the National Committee, calling the body to account for the slightest deviation from conference policy. Not surprisingly, a dear friend, Sue Atkins, then President, dubbed us ‘a bunch of shites in whining armour’. She had a point! In the 90s following our defection to NALGO to join the ranks of other local government workers, a move advocated by Malcolm, we continued as a socialist caucus, meeting regularly in places as far apart as Wigan, London and Exeter. These weekends combined animated debate and much frolicking, oiled by real ale and retsina, serviced by Malcolm knocking up fried egg butties and me ironing everybody’s Saturday Night’s Live outfits. In short a classic youth work residential.
In the same decade Malcolm contributed to the emergence of the short-lived, heretical and thought-provoking initiative, the Revolutionary Social Network, which sought to bring together anarchists, Marxists and socialists in open discussion and allied activity.
As the new century dawned the remnants of the Socialist Caucus with Malcolm to the fore formed the Critically Chatting Collective: Youth, Community and Beyond, which again organised events around the country. One topic, close to his heart, was how to refuse management’s right to manage.
By 2008 the Collective’s low key success led Malcolm and me to wonder in the light of the neoliberal banking crisis whether a broader call to defend young person-centred practice would be heard. The result was the Open Letter, which catalysed the creation of In Defence of Youth Work, which lives on today. Malcolm has been a prominent Steering Group member since its inception, even as his illness bore down upon him.
Leave aside the radical but brief episode in CYWU’s history, wherein caucusing was defined as the lifeblood of a democratic union, all of the collectives described here treasured their independence from the formal institutions. As Malcolm insisted, we met in our own time, on our terms without permission from above, taking our inspiration from the women’s, black and gay liberation movements. He was anxious too that all of these groups were inclusive, not exclusive. Hence they were pluralist in character, desiring sharp exchanges of views yet seeking, if possible, common ground. Thinking of Malcolm in this context is to evoke an ironic smile. In his early CYWU days he gained the reputation of being a headbanger, a working-class lad not to be crossed. To our shame we went along sometimes with the caricature, laughing about his ‘Donkey-jacket’ moments and confessing to shifting seats away from him when he rose to speak. He enjoyed making us all squirm. Yet in reality, he was the exact opposite of the stereotype. He was a mediator and conciliator, looking always to forge a shared sense of purpose, warning against blaming ‘the Other’, whoever that might be.
The pen portrait of the youth worker to be found in the Open Letter might well have been inspired by Malcolm. Perchance it was.
The essential significance of the youth worker, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy are at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.
He was the very embodiment of a thoughtful yet spontaneous youth work offered with a twinkle in the eye. In his later endeavours within the Young Mayor’s Project and its European offshoots what stands out is his refusal to countenance training the young people to adopt the behaviours expected by the establishment. Young representatives entering the political stage were not offered scripts or role models. Rather they were encouraged to be themselves, to trust their intuition and to speak their truth to power. By all accounts, for much of the time the impact of such openness was something to behold.
Whilst fancying myself as something of an improviser in my relationships with young people I don’t think I was ever as brave as Malcolm in flying by the seat of my pants. And when it came to operating in the world of formal education his laid-back approach drove me to distraction. When preparing a speech or workshop, say, for a conference I was diligence itself, arriving with sheaves of handwritten notes for security. To my credit I never once used PowerPoint! On the other hand, Malcolm budged not one inch from his confidence that ‘all would be alright on the night’. On one occasion we were down to do a double act. Dutifully I sent in advance my profuse notes with detailed instructions on how we could dovetail seamlessly our contributions. Cometh the day he ignored utterly my manicured proposal and went off on one, as we used to say. The audience was wooed and our session closed to generous applause. He winked at me as if to say, ‘you worry too much’. I was lost for words.
I was more at ease with an alternative version of our doubles pairing. In this performance I offered the meticulously prepared input from the stage whilst Malcolm waited in the wings, ready to reveal his take on the question in hand. In fact he took to hovering on his feet at the back of the room, awaiting the perfect moment to intervene. The only snag from my point of view was that sometimes he was so carried away with the sharpness of his insight he began to revisit its acuity unnecessarily, prompting me to wave as if asking for the bill in a taverna but rather calling on him to wind up. Let me tell you he was not well pleased.
In recent years both of us have criticised the consolidation of a form of neoliberal behavioural youth work, which ducks explicitly purpose and politics. At a European conference in Plymouth we asked:
Do we wish to manufacture the emotionally resilient young person, who will put up with the slings and arrows of antagonistic social policies, accept their precarious lot and do the best for themselves – utterly individualised and responsibilised?
Do we wish to play a part, however fragile and uncertain, in the emergence of a young critical citizen, committed to challenging their lot in concert with one another and indeed ourselves, struggling to forge a more just and equal society, believing that ‘another world is possible’?
On a less grand level, Malcolm argued that our task is to support young people becoming who they want to be. Isn’t this risky, you might ask? What if they turn out differently than we hope? In responding he would invoke the IDYW definition of youth work – volatile and voluntar,y, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees. Going on, though, he would stress his faith in the unlimited potential of convivial conversation, of chatting critically about our lived circumstances, knowing that issues of oppression and exploitation would emerge ‘naturally’. The notion of imposing enlightenment via behaviourism was anathema to him, a contradiction in terms.
Last year in October Malcolm made an enormous effort to come to Crete, determined to tell of his terminal illness face-to-face. It was fitting that our last physical meeting took place on Greek soil. We, together with close friends and partners, had become unashamed Graecophiles. Being on the island allowed us to revisit memories, of many a cheeky retsina imbibed, of much-loved tavernas, of stunning beaches and dramatic mountain walks. Tears flowed with the wine and the Mythos beer Malcolm craved.
As you might expect the week allowed us to take a deep breath together about the past, present and future. There were elements of despondency in our discourse.
We shared our frustration at the continuing ‘formalisation of the informal’, symbolised on the IDYW Facebook page by the requests for what were in all but name, lesson plans. So too, we touched upon IDYW’s failure to become a living network of worker and academic activists, blaming obviously the neoliberal undermining of the instinct of solidarity as well as pondering to what extent professionalisation had sapped our independent spirit.
Linked to this question of self-organisation we revisited the perennial dilemma of agency. If change is to take place, who will make it happen? Or as Castoriadis puts it, “to what extent does the contemporary situation give birth in people the desire and capacity to create a free and just society?” When faced with our aspiration to change what’s going on, Malcolm had always asked what social force supports our desire? Without which we are pissing in the wind.
Inexorably this did lead us to our analysis of the contemporary situation. We shared our anxiety about a society sleep-walking into authoritarianism. We marked the shift to a technocratic capitalism, the rule of unelected and unaccountable experts. We expressed our distaste and disdain, often visible, for behavioural psychologists.
At this point, I was sinking into a trough of despond, but Malcolm wouldn’t have it. Facing imminent death himself he wasn’t for being miserabilist. He affirmed that we had a moral and political obligation to those, who had gone before us to continue the fight for a better world, to defend their hard-won gains. Brushing aside my frustration that he had rarely set pen to paper except in text, smiling at my charge that if he’d spent less time on the phone he might have, he extolled me to keep on, keep on writing. As we bad each other a tearful farewell he mooted that faced with Dystopia we must revive our belief in Utopia; that technocracy must be defeated by democracy.
In the aftermath of his visit I found myself, wondering how well we knew one another. This was sparked by a question about how much we knew about each other’s personal lives. The implication was that we steered clear of sharing our emotions, being typically male. The cliched generalisation didn’t fit. We loved another and said so publicly, hugged and kissed. We were passionate politically about the future of humanity. That is enough for me.
In the shadow of his death I am determined to do his bidding. I won’t retreat into an idiotic, private life. Sadly a hope that I could interview him about his Youth Work Journey fell foul of the encroaching cancer. What I do recognise now, more than ever, is that, as I wrote, Malcolm was often holding the pen with me; that my scribbling was always influenced by our eclectic conversations, even if sometimes we seemed to be talking in riddles. In this sense I will continue a commentary on youth work and beyond, knowing that Malcolm is beside me, whispering into my ear, ‘it seems to me’…….
La Lutta Continua
Ο αγώνας συνεχίζεται
The struggle continues
“It is not what is, but what could be and should be, that has need of us.” [Cornelius Castoriadis}
There are many gaps in this reminiscence. I have consciously left out names. I didn’t know where to begin and end in terms of introducing people into my recollection. It is my hope that the missing people will offer their own reminiscences and thus write themselves into the story, contributing to a fuller account of Malcolm’s memorable life. If you feel so moved, send your memories to email@example.com My reminiscence will also be appearing appropriately on the In Defence of Youth Work web site.
At least since the late 1970s and the triumph of neoliberalism we have lived through a period of orchestrated, self-centred individualism. Active citizens reduced to passive consumers. This debilitating onslaught on both our collective sensibility and our organisations of solidarity has been resisted – most magnificently, in my opinion, during the Great Strike of 1984/85. Yet the neoliberal behavioural modification project has proved highly successful. Even as the neoliberal economic model broke asunder in 2008 its narcissistic ideology held its own. On another day I might well try to explore how the technocratic authoritarian State response to COVID has thrived on the back of demanding that, muzzled, we distance ourselves from each other; that we abandon hard-won freedoms, not least the right to protest. In saying this I recognise that mutual aid flourished in the early part of the manufactured crisis but wonder whas happened to its flowering? And, in directing you to this Memorial Lecture, I do so with some trepidation. Why, you might ask, given my nostalgia for those days, privileged to stand alongside the men and women of the mining communities? My anxiety flows from my dismay at the British Left as a whole, which, if anything, has indicated that, if in power, it would be even more draconian. For my part, if they could be bothered , I would suggest they read and ponder the libertarian Lenin, who in ‘State and Revolution’ argued that ‘every cook’ should govern. As it is today most cooks, outside of the home, are unemployed and haven’t the faintest say in ‘what’s going on’. I’m intrigued by how Ken Loach will see matters.
I’m not sure if this piece, which appeared in the ninth issue of the Inner London Education Authority’s Schooling and Culture forty years ago, is of much interest today. Certainly, across the decades, it resonates for me, if for no one else, particularly so as its final paragraph mirrors the concluding call I make in the recent post, Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity.
Compare the two:
1981 We are putting energy into building our local union branch to act as a focus for our political action. Crucial to this development is the building of links with other Community and Youth Service Association (CYSA) branches in the country and with other oppositional groups. But we do not want to be seen to be trotting out empty slogans about collectivity and solidarity. For instance we are struggling to make any contact at all with our local labour movement. Our own cohesion itself is very fragile, but we have made a start at the coalface. That is with our own feelings to one another. We will feel stronger in this struggle if we hear from other people across the country. Such a network of support is vital if we are to create a movement in opposition to the resurgence of repression and reaction that is upon us.
2021Gazing outwards I wonder whether this is a moment when IDYW should explore directly with its supporters the reasons for our reluctance to organise collectively. Am I being old-fashioned in believing that, when push comes to shove, if resistance is to strike fear into the powerful it will spring from acting together on the basis of the classic slogan, ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’? Am I living in a dream to believe that a passionate and organised IDYW democratic alliance of workers, volunteers and young people could be part of the absolutely necessary social and political resistance to the dystopian prospect offered by the global elite and the World Economic Forum?
Of course, one the one hand, the similarity might well reveal the weariness of my thinking, that I am trapped in romantic nostalgia. On the other it might well illustrate that the will and commitment to self-organise, to come together under our own steam, remains fundamental. More than ever in these self-centred neoliberal times, it marks a break from the cul-de-sac of individualistic virtue. It is a choice we can make. It is a difficult choice, made ever easier the more we choose to do it together.
It’s more than interesting that the 1981 piece is a defence of liberal education as expressed in a process-led youth work faced by conservative resistance on the ground. In 2020 we strive to oppose a holistic liberal education to behavioural neo-liberal education and its technocratic imposition of prescribed outcomes.
STUTTERING STEPS IN POLITICAL EDUCATION
TONY TAYLOR AND ROY RATCLIFFE – at the time of writing I was the Wigan Youth Service’s Training Officer and Roy, an Area Youth Worker.
[Schooling and Culture, Issue 9, London, ILEA Cockpit Arts Workshop, Spring 1981 The issue, Youth, Community: Crisis, included a number of relevant articles. See in particular, Mica Nava, ‘Girls aren’t really a problem…’, Tony Taylor and Roy Ratcliffe, ‘Stuttering steps in political education’, and Bernard Davies, ‘Social Education and Political Education: In Search of Integration’.]
Within the present political and economic climate the Youth Service is once again in depression. The future is clouded. However, crises are a recurrent feature of youth work’s recent history and the response thus far suggests that the field is sceptical of this latest Armageddon. “Wolf’s been cried once too often!”—it is merely a time to keep one’s head down until the situation passes over. We would hope that this latest trough is not the slough of a very desperate despond. It is not just the Youth Service that faces calamity, but the whole of liberal education. Strategies of resistance are urgently needed. Here we wish to share our experiences about the attempted development of a Social Education Programme for a local authority statutory Youth Service and so participate in producing a positive collective response to the conservative onslaught.
Back in 1974 local government reorganisation offered the possibility of reviewing the state of the Youth Service. In Wigan a working party dominated by conservative elements within the voluntary sector produced a pale pamphlet which proposed (as objectives for youth leaders) tired and trusted tenets such as ‘the moral and spiritual development of young people.’ An increased youth work staff inherited this static apology as a blueprint for its practice. The dominant modes of operating available as examples to field workers were rooted in either ‘garden fete’ paternalism or activity oriented authoritarianism. Ideas of person-centred counselling and group work, the staple diet of training courses, floated on the margins of debates about the future. The underlying tension caused by this marginalisation and differing levels of perception was heightened by the influx of some workers more committed to a liberal perspective. Increasingly the long-standing traditional leadership base of youth work imposed an uneasy truce on the non-directive structures promulgated by training agencies following the post-Albermarle resurrection of Youth Service and the community emphasis of Milson/Fairbairn.
Over the first two years after reorganisation this lack of ‘compatibility’ between rival theories and practices caused frequent problems. As a response to this turmoil a group of full and part-time workers produced a document entitled The Programme of Action, which insisted that the Service’s objectives were the heightening of young people’s awareness (personal, social and political) and greater member participation. Quoting Brecht in “assisting the little fishes”, the introduction argued the Youth Service’s priority role in supporting the disadvantaged young person. Faced by such a clear statement of the liberal position’s concern for the individually deprived, the Youth Service hierarchy endorsed the submission and rushed it through Council to become the official Youth Service line. There was no attempt to familiarise the councillors and other advisory bodies with the content of the Programme. It was normal practice to treat them contemptuously as mere ‘rubber stamps’. Our acceptance of this manipulation and failure to discuss the issue seriously with the local politicians was to have severe repercussions in later years. However on the surface there was now the prospect of encouraging liberal youth work within the framework of the Programme of Action as a secure and agreed basis for the Youth Service staff. On paper we were now officially ‘Social Educators’.
In the following period the gulf between the rhetoric of the Programme of Action and the day to day reality caused further confrontations over such issues as policing the building; supporting the young homeless; swearing and moral decency. Reactionary positions continued to win the day and eventually several staff fled the scene. Crucial to the weakness of the ‘liberal’ position in this period was the poor relationship between full-time and many part-time staff. The latter’s overall support for status quo was often decisive. Linked to this failure the full-time staff itself became further fragmented. It was then a relatively simple task for the hierarchy ‘to divide and rule’.
Early in 1978 when the last remaining radical (and highest qualified) of the staff was ironically promoted to a training position, divisions within the staff grew worse. Bloodied and isolated the new Training Officer pursued a purist policy that created radical initiatives, which received only token support from the majority of the staff, who often used the argument that training occupied an ‘ivory tower’. Contradictorily the hierarchy tended to support this radical thrust, realising perhaps that it was unlikely to impinge problematically on practice, having themselves only a ‘wishy—washy’ pragmatism to put in its place. Crisis management was the order of the day and intervention only came after ‘things had blown up’.
The same year also saw the recruitment of further full-time staff new to the borough and it was against this background that training constructed a new strategy early in 1979. This was the setting up of a Training and Development Unit. Our argument was that this venture would provide a fresh angle on the problem of building a bridge between theory and practice. The view we took was that the liberal theories as they appeared in the Programme of Action, whilst containing the possibility of many alternative interpretations, also presented a sufficient brief to support a struggle against many elements of oppression in our society particularly as they affected young people. We considered that these liberal ideas and sentiments supported verbally by the hierarchy were evidence that these notions had general support from the majority of staff. We accepted the criticism that training was often cut-off from the day to day practice of youth work and needed to be brought closer to reality. We were aware that many part-time staff, some in the past and some recently, had tried and were trying against overwhelming odds to implement sections of the Programme of Action. The odds we all struggled against comprised of an ineffective, unimaginative, one year trained group of advisers for whom the status quo offered a peaceful if uneventful life; a general apathy and cynicism; and a lack of materials and resources with which to work. In developing the idea of a Training and Development Unit along with other innovations, we hoped to support current efforts; to develop good practice; to reinvigorate the demoralised; to convert the cynical; and call the bluff of the reactionaries. Some of the suggested initiatives were judged impractical for that year and so were shelved but the whole staff team welcomed the setting up of the Training and Development Unit.
Although the authority insisted on line management relationships, the endeavour was organised collectively. Internally within the unit there was no hierarchy, but the Youth Service structure accepted only one person, the Training Officer, as being responsible. Nevertheless it was hoped that many practical barriers would be removed by the provision of resources and the means to deliver them to the clubs. Principally the creation of a resource centre with a library, group work room, printing facilities, audio and video equipment and filming capability was to be the material factor that would overcome liberal Youth Work’s traditional inadequacies in the areas of planning, preparation and delivery. The centre would not, however, wait passively to be utilised but would be an active component brought to life by the Development Team. Exciting stimuli could be created at the centre on topics of social education and then taken into the world of table tennis and discos. The Development Team of one full-time worker and six part—time workers would be able to respond to requests, and prompt responses. Its main, if not sole brief was to lubricate the path of liberal theory to the seat of practice and then to return it for examination. Training was to move from ‘one-off’ exhortations and short courses to a view that sought to unite training, youth workers and young people in an educational dialogue.
Over the last two years the Training Centre, the Development Team and individual workers have indeed made moves towards these objectives. Yet the effect of theory on practice continues to be muted. The gap and therefore the contradiction between a liberal theory and a conservative practice remains. However, the efforts have served to sharpen our awareness of the depth of the blockages to the implementation of a social education praxis. In particular it has highlighted the rigidity of hierarchical structures; the flaccid response of many youth workers to authority; the insidious grip of ‘common-sense’ empiricism; the low self-image of the Service as a whole; and our own specific failure to build a solid base of support within and without the Service. Instead of now being in a position to examine how liberal theory enlightened practice, we are in the unfortunate position of being confronted by the mass of conservative practice which negated liberal theory. A number of ‘problems’ occurred, some of which we outline below. In each case we suggest that the practice was not checked against the supposed objectives of the Service, but that a summary arbitration was imposed on the basis of the lowest ‘common-sense’ denominator.
Case 1: THE ALL NIGHT PARTY
The Programme of Action underlines involvement as a major objective; it speaks of young people’s active involvement in the organisation of youth centres. Under a heading Strategies it recommends ‘identifying their own needs’; ‘involvement in decision-making’; ‘collecting subscriptions’; ‘keys to the centre’. In line with this authority policy, one club, apparently backed by its management committee, extended democracy and eventually achieved a locally unprecedented level of attendance and participation. Then an incident occurred in which young people trusted with keys were judged to have ‘gone too far’. They had held an all night party at the club on what later evidence proved to be a very orderly and tame basis. The young people concerned sought and obtained parental consent and displayed a host of other ‘responsible’ actions before embarking upon the venture. None of these actions were checked out and instead rumours of sexual license and permissiveness abounded. They were hastily considered to have gone ‘over the top’ and their access to keys was immediately withdrawn from them. There was no consultation with these young adults (the majority were over 18, and the party was for the 21st birthday of one of the members). Our position as a Service in the face of an orchestrated attack on our philosophy was to desert the young people in question, and the full-time staff members who supported them, and capitulate before dark threats about club closures and the forthcoming education cuts.
Case 2: THE MEMBERS’ COUNCIL
Embodied in the Programme of Action is a commitment to political awareness. We read under Objectives: ‘Development of questioning attitudes within young people’, and under Strategies: ‘Members’ Councils with power, e.g. finances.’ In line with this policy a group of youth club members from different clubs overcame considerable organisational difficulties and formed an embryo Members’ Council. After visiting a ‘Youth Charter—Towards 2000’ Conference called ‘Making Ourselves Heard’, they produced a bulletin of their impressions which they hoped would become the basis of a local youth council magazine. The bulletin contained a small number of Anglo-Saxon swear words which expressed the anger and frustrations which many of them felt. Response to the publication was swift and decisive. All support and facilities were removed from the young people and they, once more isolated, soon disbanded. As a Service we washed our hands of the affair and disciplined the full-time members of staff who had supported the Members’ Council. No evaluation was made of the situation. Members’ Councils ceased to be on the agenda of priorities.
Case 3: MEMBERS ONLY MAGAZINE
Bearing the Programme of Action’s statements about political awareness and participation in mind, about 60 copies of an NAYC publication, Members Only, were ordered. The magazine contained articles on writing and producing club newspapers. However on its front cover was a picture of a group of punks dressed in their ‘gear’ with one young male giving a V-sign to the camera. Distribution of the magazine was banned. Our response as a Service was to bow our heads and meekly comply with the censorship. What had happened to developing questioning attitudes?
Case 4: SEXISM
In this case a practical ‘problem’ has not yet arisen. We include it merely as a pointer to the future.A section of the training programme proposed a policy of positive discrimination in favour of young women. It suggested the setting up of a working party to investigate the male orientation of the Service; the organisation of a Workers Against Sexism Group; the publication of a GuidelinesAgainst Sexism booklet; and the planning of ‘Boys Rule Not OK’ weekends. At the committee meetings to approve the programme, objections were made to the Training Section’s ‘obsession’ with sex and its trendy sociological approach. Fears were expressed about the direction of this type of youth work. As a Service our response was ‘to box clever’ and to rewrite the offending passage, but seeds of doubt had already been liberally (!) sown. The ’response’ in this case has occurred at the level of theory and we can perhaps anticipate how a practical implementation will be greeted.
[ December 2020 – Indeed tackling sexism within the Service did create all manner of tensions. However the emergence of a self-organised Women Workers Group, the power and sophistication of its strategy and tactics, was to prove crucial to Work With Girls and Young Women moving to the centre of the Service’s practice.]
In all of these cases, it is seductive to define the problem as being one of ‘mistakes’ made by theparticipants: “If only they had handled things differently and in a more sensible way.” This simplistic analysis allows critics of the situation to claim that they are still in favour of social education but not of incompetence – witness their fashionable exasperation with the Tyndale teachers, whose actions they allege have made it so difficult to be progressive. It amounts to the view that anything less than a perfect initiative is too risky to try—an obvious recipe for the status quo. The charade though of support for experiment so long as it’s bland, keeps ajar the refuge that radical practice is possible provided we are familiar with and take heed of the constraints of ‘common-sense’.
But it is important to look more closely at part of the opposition to attempts to implement such liberal documents as Wigan’s Programme of Action. As a group of responses they are not the irrational or erratic whims of individuals, but flow in a complex way from the movement of wider forces in society. As a tool to look at this situation we concur with the concept of “moral panic”, first mooted by Stan Cohen in Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1973), and subtly developed by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in their Policing the Crisis (1978). At a certain moment in each of our examples a response of ‘moral panic or outrage’ can be identified. In Case 1 the focus was alleged sexual promiscuity; in Case 2 the vulgar words signalled the approach of anarchy and the subversion of moral standards; in Case 3 the punks, folk-devils of the late seventies, exuded a provocative contempt for authority; in Case 4 the contentious mixture was defined as being obsessed with sex and women’s lib, wishy-washy, yet manipulative and deviously subversive. Much of the outrage appeared genuine, although the sexual obsession resided with the critics rather than with those on the stage. However, what is significant is the way in which the narrow moral/sexual concern was expanded into an increasingly broader context in which the future of society was held to be at stake. Thus a particular form and style of educational approach was deemed to be responsible for the demise of traditional values and standards. This is demonstrated by the fact that the response does not limit itself to the specific issue alone, but is extended so as to prevent all further development i.e. not a restriction on swear words but a complete restriction of Members’ Council’s activities, etc. Thus what at first sight appears to be an outbreak of situation-specific moral indignation later grows into a more general authoritarian reaction to the whole of progressive youth work and more! The form is moral outrage but the content is political reaction.
We are not arguing that such developments are peculiar to youth work. Clearly all those involved ineducation and wishing to pursue in practice strategies in opposition to oppression and exploitation run the risk of being attacked in this way. Education authorities do not as a rule smile benevolently on school/student unions, pupils representation and the like, especially if there is any suggestion of autonomous decision-making. As far as the Youth Service is concerned we would venture that the problems and responses noted above are a normal feature of its existence. This is to suggest that workers involved in social education initiatives are likely to be caught in a depressing circle of frustration. It is still sometimes fondly thought that youth workers are less hamperedby authoritarian structural constraints than their colleagues in schools. Whilst it will come as no surprise to learn that they are fettered rather than free, it may be a shock to realise how little roomthey have for manoeuvre; how quickly reaction can come; and how little needs to be done to provoke the wrath of authority. Alongside the grandiloquent rhetoric about sexual awareness; political awareness; and member participation, we must note the outrage that will accompany almost immediately, mention of masturbation and the clitoris; talk of Marxism; and discussion about political demonstration. Stuttering steps towards opening up political issues precipitate ‘moral panic’ and the bureaucratic guillotine.
And where are the mass of youth workers in the face of this opposition to the very life blood of their supposedly unique educational organism? We fear that many are hiding their heads in the sand and we would accept some responsibility for their ostrich-like state, but as A J Jeffs comments,
“Analysis of current practice inevitably invokes self-criticism and is likely to threaten thefragile consensus that service to bind the disparate wings of the Youth Service together,therefore it tends to be avoided.”
So too the ‘liberalism’ that underpins much of the youth work ethos is assessed by Hall et al to be ill-equipped to resist the ‘direct impact or pragmatic immediacy of the traditionalist world view.’
In the light of these reflections we would put a question mark alongside all current liberal initiatives in support of young people. Serious struggles against, for instance, sexism and racism aimed at changing the basis of human relationships are obviously a threat to those who wish to preserve their privilege by controlling the existing conditions of inequality. However the chosen axis of response by authority to such efforts is unlikely to be one of a frontal assault upon ‘equality’, given this liberal notion’s deep rooted position in our culture. The forces of resistance to change are more likely to utilise the dynamic that is expressed firstly as outrage at a particular characteristic of a situation e.g. ‘vulgar language’, ‘nudity’,’sexual excess’, but which is then able to escalate these phenomena into the tell-tale signs of a general threat to the very fabric of our society. In this way the needs of authority and power are presented as the mutual concern of ‘all good men and true’ and ‘anybody with any common-sense’. So too the promotion of even liberal ideas in education is by slides and elisions identified as extremist and violent.
Thus the question mark, when placed alongside these efforts to motivate liberal youth work practice, reveals a conspicuous lack of success. But the tale is not to end here in circular depression. At one level our Programme of Action and developments such as the National Youth Bureau’s ‘Enfranchisement’ initiative are in dire straits. In 1980-81 liberal efforts to advance the status of young people, of the unemployed, of women, of blacks, are swimming against the tide of cuts, closures and the drift to a law and order society. But while it is idealistic and naive to talk of individual freedom and the whole liberal baggage without recognising the present economic base and political structure, it is pessimistic and undialectical to view the present situation as static and without contradiction; the state as monolithic and people as unchangeable. Thus we are now trying to apply an understanding of our failure to our present practice. We ourselves noted in an article in Youth in Society (October 1980) that a global analysis needs to be sensitised by the understanding on a personal level that comes from counselling and group work. So at the top of our list of priorities now is the exhausting task of coming together with our fellow workers to talk about ‘where we’re at’; to discuss why we alienate one another; to begin to find common ground. It is about examining our real rather than our imaginary differences in order ‘to hold hands with each other’, both actually and metaphorically; it is about creating a climate of relative, but real trust and honesty. In short it entails utilising those group work skills, which are our supposed youth work inheritance.
Alongside this we are putting energy into building our local union branch to act as a focus for our political action. Crucial to this development is the building of links with other Community and Youth Service Association (CYSA) branches in the country and with other oppositional groups. But we do not want to be seen to be trotting out empty slogans about collectivity and solidarity. For instance we are struggling to make any contact at all with our local labour movement. Our own cohesion itself is very fragile, but we have made a start at the coalface. That is with our own feelings to one another. We will feel stronger in this struggle if we hear from other people across the country. Such a network of support is vital if we are to create a movement in opposition to the resurgence of repression and reaction that is upon us.
S Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Paladin, 1973.
S Hall et al, Policing the Crisis, Macmillan, 1978.
A J Jeffs, Young People and the Youth Service, RKP, 1979.
Of this clamorous collective cry of anger I knew nothing. The mainstream media was conspicuously silent. Perhaps its bosses and editors filed the event under misinformation or fake news. Or perhaps fond nowadays of defining any deviation from the dominant narrative as born of illusory ‘conspiracy theory’ they persuaded themselves that a general strike of 200 million workers in India never happened.
However it did and should be celebrated, even as we recognise the limitations and dilemmas. As it is I discovered the news only because of my presence on alternative web sites, about which I have been warned. These, unlike the responsible and truthful mainstream media, are out to manipulate my mind, being no more than purveyors of propaganda.
With these qualms in mind I hope you might take some time to absorb this description of the perilous situation faced by the Indian people and their inspiring response. The piece is written from a Trotskyist perspective, the tradition through which I was radicalised fifty years ago. It has all the strengths and weaknesses of its political outlook, which I put to one side respectfully long ago. Thank goodness though for the coverage.
On Thursday, some 200 million workers held a one day general strike in India. This massive day of action was called by 10 trade unions and over 250 farmers organizations and was accompanied by massive protests and a near total shutdown of some Indian states. According to the call put out by unions, the general strike was organized against “the anti-people, anti-worker, anti-national and destructive policies of the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
The withdrawal of all “anti-farmer laws and anti-worker labour codes”
The payment of 7,500 rupees in the accounts of each non-tax paying family
Monthly supply of 10 kg of food to needy families
The expansion of the MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005) to include 200 workdays each year, higher wages, and the Act’s extension to urban industries
Stop the “privatisation of the public sector, including the financial sector, and stop corporatisation of government-run manufacturing and service entities like railways, ordnance factories, ports, etc.”
The withdrawal of the “draconian forced premature retirement of government and PSU (public sector) employees”
Pensions for all, the scrapping of the National Pension System and the reimposition of the earlier pension plan with amendments
Workers in nearly all of India’s major industries — including steel, coal, telecommunications, engineering, transportation, ports, and banking — joined the strike. Students, domestic workers, taxi drivers, and other sectors also participated in the nationwide day of action.
In addition to the demands of the nationwide strike, certain sectors made industry-specific demands to fight back against the government’s attacks to their industries that affect the entire working class in India. For example, bank employees are fighting against bank privatization, outsourcing, and for a reduction in service charges and action against big corporate defaults.
Other industries framed their demands in the context of the government’s appalling response to the pandemic and economic crisis hitting India. As the Bombay University and College Teachers’ Union’s statement stated:
This strike is against the devastating health and economic crisis unleashed by COVID-19 and the lockdown on the working people of the country. This has been further aggravated by a series of anti-people legislations on agriculture and the labour code enacted by the central government. Along with these measures, the National Education Policy (NEP) imposed on the nation during the pandemic will further cause irreparable harm to the equity of and access to education.
The article ends on a classic Trotskyist call to extend and deepen the strike, with which I have not the slightest quarrel. Indeed extending and deepening our collective resistance on all fronts to the increasingly authoritarian face of capitalism is paramount.
A few weeks ago I was ready to make a contribution on the theme of resistance to an In Defence of Youth Work Zoom seminar. However an electricity cut in our village scuppered that idea. In the end I’ve messed around with my notes and produced for what it’s worth the following piece. As it happens I’m withdrawing from the IDYW Steering Group to sit on the backbenches. For nigh on 12 years I’ve prioritised playing a part in the life of IDYW but have grown evermore uncomfortable about pontificating about youth work in the UK from kilometres away. Nevertheless I intend to continue with this Chatting Critically blog and hope in the coming months, even years to feature interviews with characters, famous, infamous and unknown from within the world of youth and community work. As they say, watch this space.
If you’re interested I can recommend reading the three challenging contributions at the Zoom seminar, which were not derailed by thunder and lightning.
“The future will challenge our understanding of what it means to be human, from both a biological and a social standpoint” [Klaus Schwab FIR p35]
In Defence of Youth Work [IDYW] was born in resistance. Its emergence in early 2009 was an explicit two fingers to the neoliberal assault on social-democratic, open access and open-ended youth work. This was a form of youth work we defined as ‘volatile and voluntary, creative and collective- an association and conversation without guarantees’. Scoffing at our idealism neoliberalism demanded that youth work be the imposition of structured, time-limited interventions led by prescribed and predictable outcomes. We described a clash between our sense of ‘becoming a person, individually, socially and politically aware’, which held good for ourselves and young people and neoliberalism’s desire to manufacture self-centred conformism and obedience to the status quo amongst both ourselves and young people.
We contrasted our commitment to unfolding relationships and conversations, to intimate and collective democracy with the short-term, calculated, supposedly measurable interventions recommended by the powerful Impact lobby. We defended our crucial understanding of young people as heterogeneous, born into a matrix of class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith, against the neoliberal revival of the abstract young person denied their diversity. In short, we opposed the depoliticisation of practice.
We have been swimming against the tide over the last decade. Even if, in a naive moment prior to the last General Election we wondered whether the tide might even be turning. The orchestrated humiliation of Jeremy Corbyn dispelled that dream. Nevertheless, we have been a prickly thorn in the side of Youth Work’s self-proclaimed leadership. Indeed it has been admitted in private that from time to time we have disturbed the collaborative pragmatism of such as the NYA and UK Youth, not that they would ever admit this in public.
Yet, whilst neoliberal ideology prevails, its free-market economic model is broken. Thus I want to suggest that we are in transition to technocratic capitalism as the dominant section of the ruling class seeks to reassert its control over a fractured global society. In this scenario, spelt out in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the nation-state acts as the ruling class’s senior management enabling the imposition of its global policies. Disobedient populations “risk becoming isolated from global norms, putting these nations at risk of becoming the laggards of the new digital economy”[Schwab FIR p78].
Inevitably, if this shift comes to pass, the nature of this new regime will influence the character of youth work in all its forms.
The reference group for grasping the strategic thinking of the powerful in a period of profound social, political and economic crisis is the World Economic Forum [WEF], which in its own words is “the global platform for public-private cooperation, of partnerships between businessmen, politicians, intellectuals and other leaders of society to define, discuss and advance key issues on the global agenda.” On board amongst many are Amazon, Google, Facebook, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Chase, AstraZyneco, Pfizer, the Gates Foundation – all powerhouses on the international scene – not to mention the World Health Organisation and International Monetary Fund.
Now if I had been venturing some critical thoughts a year ago on a WEF political perspective, which embraces enthusiastically global governance, the glories of automation, artificial intelligence, neurotechnology and mass surveillance we could have held a friendly, rational, even concerned discussion – even if I came across as having just read Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. However the pandemic has put paid to that. My speculative musings of 2019 on an insidious drift to authoritarianism are likely now to be dismissed as ‘conspiracy theory’, a weary insult which excuses the accuser from any serious scrutiny of events.
For there is no way of commenting on the WEF’s politics separate from the remarkable unity of 198 countries in following the unelected World Health Organisation’s declaration of a pandemic and the blanket adoption of the same narrative of fear by politicians and the mainstream media across the world. Against this backcloth, lest I be accused of not being concerned about both the suffering, the dying and the deceased, let’s agree the hegemonic version of events promulgated is the informed truth devoid of complication and contradiction. I will say no more therefore than that the pandemic has amplified key themes in the WEF’s vision of the future. Indeed Kurt Schwab, the founder and executive chair of this self-appointed body has welcomed warmly in the book, ‘The Great Reset’, the window of opportunity provided by the virus in accelerating the WEF’s agenda.
The pandemic will mark a turning point by accelerating this transition. It has crystallized the issue and made a return to the pre-pandemic status quo impossible.” [Schwab TGR p110]
Amongst these themes are:
The crucial need for the financial sector, together with the corporate, technological and pharmaceutical giants, to be the leadership of the way forward in tackling the world’s problems. “The combined market value of the leading tech companies hit record after record during the lockdowns, even rising back above levels before the outbreak started… this phenomenon is unlikely to abate any time soon, quite the opposite”. [Schwab TGR p119].
The necessity of transforming digitally our private and public existence, whether through shopping, via a shift to on-line education, tele-medicine or even e-sport.“In the summer of 2020, the direction of the trend seems clear: the world of education, like for so many other industries, will become partly virtual”.[Schwab TGR p116]
The demand that we speed up becoming identifiable, immunised, traceable, card-carrying, cash-less consumers.“The current imperative to propel, no matter what, the ‘contactless economy’ and the subsequent willingness of regulators to speed it up means that there are no holds barred”[Schwab TGR p124]
This dominant fraction of the 1% is not without nous. In the name of stakeholder capitalism, its prefered definition of itself, it claims to care about poverty, injustice and the environment. Classically it seeks to co-opt for its own ends radical ideas and practice, for example, intersectionality, LGBTQ rights and youth activism. Whilst the liberal rhetoric is seductive, its programme of action is arrogant and authoritarian. It seeks both to persuade and intimidate. Its proposals are marketed as being in the common interest. The rules of existence will be made by experts for our own good. To doubt this expertise is to be misinformed or even just plain stupid, no more than a Covidiot.
Conspicuously absent in the WEF scenario is the demos, the people. Missing crucially is any sense of democracy, the power of the people. Utterly absent is the very notion that we [and no one else] should make the laws by which we live together. At best in the WEF’s vision of the future the people will be consulted.
To return to the implications for youth work it is the democratic question that is at the heart of the matter. Open youth work is education for democracy. Youth workers and young people enter into a dialogue, within which the starting point is uncertain, the journey is still to be created and the destination is open to change. It is a conversation founded on listening to each other, the prerequisite for a democratic exchange.
My anxiety is that the transition to technocratic capitalism will strengthen the neoliberal emphasis on youth work as behavioural modification, the moulding of the compliant, individualised young person. This is expressed in the continued ‘formalising of the informal’ whereby it seems that many of today’s youth workers cannot envisage contact with young people that is not planned or scripted in some way in advance. Our own IDYW Facebook group is flooded with requests for what are lesson plans in all but name. It is a practice that suggests we do know best what’s good for young people before we’ve even spoken to them. It is a practice, for what it’s worth in my rusty experience, from which many young people will recoil.
Where does all this leave us in today’s conversations with each other and young people? For ourselves we need to explore whether our grasp of the present situation leads us to accommodate to or resist the dominant narrative. In terms of our relationships with young people we need to listen to their sense of going along with or challenging the prescribed behaviours demanded by the government. This seems to me to be fertile ground on which to converse. As I suspect that many, young and old, both accommodate and resist. We might well wear a mask as requested, keep our distance in shops yet visit our friends in their homes and give false addresses in the pub.….and so on. Or is the fear of questioning the government’s diktat so threatening that we are reduced to telling young people to do as they are told? And, like it or not, at least some young people will be conscious via the social media of alternative interpretations of what’s happening, some bizarre, but some perfectly plausible.
As ever the dilemmas intensify when we find ourselves in dialogue about collective resistance. Sadly across the neoliberal decades with the undermining of the trade unions and the social movements youth workers have often submitted to management instructions to stay clear of public demonstrations alongside young people. With this backcloth in mind how are we responding to young people ‘partying’? Do we judge this as selfish anti-social behaviour or as an act of resistance to draconian restrictions? If, for whatever reason, enough is surely enough, young people take to the streets about the corner they find themselves in, do we join them or sit on the sidelines as the protest is dispersed on ‘health and safety grounds’?
To talk of resistance is one thing, to resist is another. To resist as an individual is noble, but likely to lead to disciplinary action and/or exhaustion. If we are to defend democratic youth work in the coming period we must renew our commitment to one another as a collective. In Defence of Youth Work has failed to encourage the coming together of youth workers at a local level as a first step, where worries about accommodating too much or resisting too little can be kicked around. Such gatherings of even two or three people are vital without which talk of resistance is empty. Or are we now so fearful, so precarious, so divided that even to agree to meet regularly for an hour in our own time over a drink, to chew over what’s going on, is a step too far?
Finally, my concern is that we are experiencing a slide to authoritarianism at global and national levels, the former being expressed in the WEF’s ‘expercratic’ ideology, its aversion to democracy and its desire to alter what it means to be human, “advances in neurotechnologies and biotechnologies are forcing us to question what it means to be human” [Schwab FIR p36].
In this context I’ll share a couple of heretical thoughts.
In the face of rule by experts we must refuse to be seen as experts. One of our great strengths is humility. Of course to say this is to question the very existence of youth work as a closed profession, its claim that it possesses a unique body of expertise and its desire to license practice. In terms of IDYW itself this very question returns us to our roots. At its birth IDYW was not about the defence of a profession as such or indeed about the defence of Youth Services. It was about being with young people on a voluntary journey of mutual education, within which ‘the educator is as much educated as those she seeks to educate’. Our first conference brought together people from both the statutory and voluntary sectors, who shared this philosophy. The process revealed also that, whatever the lip service paid, much mainstream practice was at odds with the IDYW cornerstones laid down in the Open Letter.
What also became clear in our initial debates was that we were defending a certain sort of ‘space’, within which we could relate to young people. And for this privileged site of practice to be in harmony with our philosophy it needed to be as independent as possible from Church, State or Philanthropy. Obviously this precious space cannot float free from relations with the community, with funders, with sponsors and so on. However it is vital that the space is afforded a high degree of ‘relative autonomy’ such that young people and workers are able to create together democratic processes and relationships. Perchance too there is a contradiction in campaigning for this democratic space to be rendered statutory by increasingly authoritarian governments.
Perhaps I’m being melodramatic but I believe we are living through a critical moment in history. More than ever the struggle against neoliberal or technocratic capitalism, against oppression and exploitation must be authentically democratic, illustrating in its practices the profound limitations of institutionalised democracy. Resistance will come from below through a renaissance of the social movements.
Where might IDYW fit in this wider background of would-be resistance? As it is, IDYW lives on as a critical voice within Youth Work as a whole. A temptation might be to look inwards and be drawn into seeking to influence the policies, say, of the National Youth Agency or Centre for Youth Impact. I think this would be a mistake, an act of accommodation rather than resistance. Gazing outwards I wonder whether this is a moment when IDYW should explore directly with its supporters the reasons for our reluctance to organise collectively. Am I being old-fashioned in believing that, when push comes to shove, if resistance is to strike fear into the powerful it will spring from acting together on the basis of the classic slogan, ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’? Am I living in a dream to believe that a passionate and organised IDYW democratic alliance of workers, volunteers and young people could be part of the absolutely necessary social and political resistance to the dystopian prospect offered by the global elite and the World Economic Forum?