Over the past few weeks I’ve made untold efforts to write something useful about the present virus-induced crisis. Amidst the ‘noise’ generated by a waterfall of articles arguing that neoliberalism, its ideology of the free market and self-centred individualism, has been exposed, I seemed to have little to add and have fallen silent. Indeed the only moment when at least some words came to my mind resulted in a piece for a special COVID-19 edition of CONCEPT, the Scottish Community Education journal, which should appear soon.
In closing I’ll propose that as we return to work beyond the crisis, there is a fleeting, unmissable chance to revive our commitment to an open-ended, emancipatory dialogue with young people and the community. It will mean challenging, resisting a return to the managerialist implementation of imposed norms and expectations, the catechism of impact. Such resistance will necessitate the urgent renewal of our collective capacity in the workplace, through workers’ self-organisation and the trade unions.
At the risk of being melodramatic this unexpected rebuke of Capitalism’s arrogance and excess marks an opening we cannot afford to let slip by. Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history.
Obviously this sweeping, even pretentious contention needs more explanation and exploration, which I’ll pursue when the CONCEPT special comes out. In the meantime responses to the Citizen Enquiry explained below offer the prospect of gathering evidence from the grassroots about the repercussions of the crisis on young people and youth work. I have copy and pasted from the IDYW web site. I would urge folk to be involved if at all possible.
What is going on for youth work in these current circumstances? How are young people feeling? What challenges are youth workers and organisations facing?
Janet Batsleer and others (including members of our own steering group) have come together to call for a ‘Citizen Enquiry’ to find out – and document for the future – what is happening for young people and for youth work and youth workers in the current situation. They invite youth workers and young people to contribute diaries for one day per month, starting on Tuesday 12th May. The idea is to contribute these youth work diaries to the wider Mass Observation archive. More information will come out nearer the time, but for now, do get in touch with Janet (details below) if you are interested in contributing a diary, encouraging others to contribute, and / or joining a network of citizen enquirers willing to discuss and analyse the contributions. This is a bottom-up, citizen inquiry, not run by any university or institution, hoping to attract wide support from youth workers. We will be sharing more as the project progresses.
Call for a Citizen Enquiry: Youth Work and Young People Now
We propose to host a Citizen Enquiry through the community-based youth work sector concerning what is happening for young people and what is happening to youth work and youth workers now and over the coming months.
To do this we will need a) a network of correspondents in all parts of the United Kingdom and b) a network of citizen enquirers willing to join in discussing and analysing what is emerging. The main purpose is to find out What is happening here? And what is happening for young people? We do not only want to document youth work but get a snapshot into the lives of both youth workers and young people during this time and the coming months. So this can include the weather, the atmosphere, the food, the music, the emotions…whatever you want to include you can. We will be making a contribution to the wider picture of what is happening via Mass Observation (www.massobs.org.uk)
We will ask for diary entries each month for at least one day on the first week of the month (starting in May) from youth workers and if possible also with young people they are working with. We will also join the Mass Observation diary project on 12th May. In addition, we invite short reports (memos) on the following themes:
Vulnerabilities and Precarious lives
Who is missing? How is outreach work happening?
Crisis points and meeting basic needs
What is happening online?
Fears and hopes for the future of your organisation/youth project ?
Then a group of citizen researchers from the youth work sector will meet monthly to consider what has been submitted in their area, join a national meeting to see what is emerging and, after 6 months say , decide on what to enquire into further.
This will be an independent citizen led research project.
Those involved will be invited to submit their diaries via this enquiry to the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex who are undertaking a record of everyday experiences of the pandemic. They will be invited to use the ethical processes associated with Mass Observation and guidance of this will be given when people join the project.
As I prevaricate as to whether I’ve anything useful to say about the present crisis, my old friend and once fellow youth worker, Roy Ratcliffe is on to his seventh response to COVID-19 and its implications. In this one in particular Roy introduces his analysis with an appealing and revealing reworking of an old nursery rhyme.
For the want of…..?
With each update of news since the Pandemic commenced, I have been reminded of a childhood story told to me about how a king lost a war against an invader. The story went something along the lines of; For want of a nail, a horseshoe was lost; for the want of the shoe a horse was lost, for the want of the horse, the rider was lost, for the want of the rider, the message was lost, and for the want of the message the battle was lost. I also remember reading the story to my young children from a Ladybird book and then explaining its meaning to two four year olds. Later I reminded them of the moral when something occurred which illustrated the point from their immediate experience and not something only relevant to childhood fiction.
Surely this moral is, in one narrative form or another, a universal story based on many chains of cause and effect with costly negative consequences. If it was taught to at least two generations of working class kids in a moderate sized industrial town in Lancashire, surely it cannot have passed by the Eton, Harrow, Oxford, and Cambridge trained elites, many of whom sit atop our governmental, medical and scientific institutions. Are we not informed that they are in receipt of jaw-dropping salaries, perks and pensions precisely because they are the most intelligent and far-sighted individuals we have on this sceptered isle?
Perhaps future children should be taught a more updated narrative based upon events and elite incompetence so far but making the same obvious points of the consequences of a lack of foresight and due diligence. Such as;
For the want of compassion – bush meat was bled. For the want of diagnosis – a virus was spread. For the want of restrictions – a pandemic was fed. For the want of protection – doctors and nurses were dead.
For the want of precautions – the contagion went wide For the want of hand gel – infection came like a tide For the want of testing – people were herded inside For the want of ventilators – weak patients then died.
For the want of hospitals – empty buildings were sought For the want of health workers – volunteers were taught For the want of truth and honesty – excuses were thought For the want of an alternative – a bailout was bought.
For the want of humanity – big-business came first For the want of a home – some were not nursed For the want of a carer – many victims felt cursed. For the want of a conscience – not much was reversed.
READ IN FULL ROY’s FURTHER ANALYSIS OF THE SITUATION at
In recent weeks I’ve been trying to write something both critical and useful about the present COVID-19 crisis. My stumbling effort is put to shame upon hearing of the death of the great Greek critic and political activist, Manolis Glezos at the age of 98. Even in his final decade he was still writing, a book on social mobilisation here, a history of acronyms there.
Together with Apostolos Santis, he earned legendary status in Greece on account of their dramatic act – the date, April 30th 1941. The daring duo tore down the swastika from the Acropolis. It had been hung on the ancient monument by the occupying Nazis. In their words they determined to remove the flag as it “offended all human ideals”.
However he was to become frustrated by the attention given to this impulsive heroism, remarking that ‘everyone identifies me with the flag incident…but I had done things before that, I had done things after that, and I’m doing things now.’
Indeed he had. Across the decades Glezos was imprisoned twenty eight times by the Germans, the Italians and then by Greek governments, suffering torture and solitary confinement. At the coup d’état of 21 April 1967, Glezos was arrested as a leader of the Left Opposition. During the Regime of the Colonels, the military dictatorship led by Giorgos Papadopoulos, he was exiled until his release in 1971. Looking back on nearly 16 years of incarceration he commented:
“They say to survive in prison you should love yourself, eat and read. Well I never loved myself, I didn’t care about food but I constantly read.”
His mercurial life witnessed him struggling with the classical contradiction between the price of involvement in parliamentary politics and the necessity of an extra-parliamentary commitment to struggle from below. In fact he was elected to the Greek Parliament on four occasions prior to the 21st century, twice as a representative of the United Democratic Left in the 1960s whilst still in prison, twice in the 1980s on a PASOK ticket, at the time the Greek version of the British Labour Party. It would seem he was chastened by this latter experience, withdrawing from Parliament to devote himself to the nurturing of grass-roots democratic projects and initiatives.
This focus was inspired by his love for the short-lived, but vibrant period of Athenian democracy, which in the words of Castoriadis sowed a seed, both frail yet hardy, for the future. When elected in 1986 as President of the Apeiranthos Community Council on Naxos, his home island, he immediately sought support for abolishing the privileges of the council, promoting the creation of a People’s Assembly founded on principles of direct democracy. Evidently the experiment was successful for many years, before it ran out of democratic steam. It would be fascinating to find out more about its demise, whether, to take but one factor, it foundered on the lack of a democratic commitment within a hierarchical Greek educational system.
He returned to mainstream political activity as the new century beckoned, involved in the rise of a rainbow alliance of the radical Left, Synaspismos. which was to give birth to SYRIZA [The Coaliton of the Radical Left]. The streets, oι δρόμοι, beckoned too. In March 2010, Glezos was participating in an anti-austerity protest in Athens, when he was hit in the face by a police tear gas canister. He was carried away injured. Back in the corridors of power he was elected as a SYRIZA MP in 2012 as the new found party rose to power on a wave of popular, progressive support. Thence in 2014 he entered the EU parliament, gaining 430,000 votes, more than any other candidate in Greece. Once there he addressed the assembled by way of Euripides and Theseus, arguing that the European Union should aspire to the example afforded by Ancient Athens, a free city, free of tyranny and ruled by the many.
Unsurprisingly Glezos was appalled by SYRIZA’s capitulation to the Troika following the people’s overwhelming rejection of a deal with the creditors, expressed in the July 2015 Greek referendum. In the aftermath he is quoted as reflecting,
“I apologize to the Greek people because I took part in this illusion, let’s react before it is too late”.
For now it does seem late in the day. Political disillusionment remains the norm in my adopted country. For Glezos resistance still ran deep in his veins. In 2017 in a scene of unbearable poignance, on a rain-soaked November day, this remarkable man, 95 years of age at the time, paid lonely homage to the fallen of the 1973 Polytechnic Uprising.
Four decades of neoliberal ideology, its explicit encouragement of self-centredness has undermined our belief in the common good. Ironically Manolis Glezos dies at a moment when the collective spirit threatens to rise from the ashes. For now I’ll leave him to have a last word with regard to not forgetting the past if we are both to grasp the present and the future.
The struggle continues,
Ο αγώνας συνεχίζεται
Why do I go on? Why I am doing this when I am 92 years and two months old? I could, after all, be sitting on a sofa in slippers with my feet up. So why do I do this? You think the man sitting opposite you is Manolis but you are wrong. I am not him. And I am not him because I have not forgotten that every time someone was about to be executed [during WWII], they said: ‘Don’t forget me. When you say good morning, think of me. When you raise a glass, say my name.’ And that is what I am doing talking to you, or doing any of this. The man you see before you is all those people. And all this is about not forgetting them.
I suspect only a handful of people know of my admiration for Cornelius Castoriadis, the remarkable Greek philosopher, psychoanalyst and political activist. Even some of my closest friends haven’t been persuaded to spend time with my faltering attempts to acquaint them with his thinking. Yet, across the years, his simple, yet profound proposal continues to resonate.
I ask to be able to participate directly in all the social decisions that may affect my existence, or the general course of the world in which I live. I do not accept the fact that my lot is decided, day after day, by people whose projects are hostile to me or simply unknown to me, and for whom we, that is I and everyone else, are only numbers in a general plan or pawns on a chessboard, and that, ultimately, my life and death are in the hands of people whom I know to be, necessarily, blind.
Indeed back in 2010 I contributed an article,’What has Cornelius Castoriadis to say about Youth Work?’ to Youth & Policy – see more below. In the ensuing years I have drawn on my understanding of Castoriadis, especially in a critique of neoliberalism’s overwhelming behavioural modification project, its goal being to turn us in on ourselves, to privatise our existence. Yet, in truth, I have ducked using explicitly key motifs in his work, notably the idea of the ‘imaginary’ as a way of shedding light on what’s going on in the world. Without doubt this reluctance stems from my long-lasting experience of an anti-intellectual and anti-theoretical tradition in youth work, little affected, it seems, by the shift in its full-time garb to being a graduate profession. I am on record as recognising this hostility to theory as not being at all simply bloody-mindedness. A significant amount of theory, as Castoriadis himself argues, is an effort to impose a template on reality, which often fails to convince. In this context it’s no wonder that practitioners fall back on ‘common-sense’.
However, as a New Year, hardly glowing with radical optimism dawns, I am motivated to have a fresh dialogue with youth workers [and perchance others] as to whether Castoriadis connects with our contemporary concerns. In seeking to do so I continue to be indebted to David Curtis, his tireless advocate, who maintains the Cornelius Castoriadis Agora International Website, which contains a recently updated version of his exploration of ‘the rising tide of insignificancy’, a dominant theme in the later writings of Castoriadis.
Social work is a contested tradition, torn between the demands of social governance and autonomy. Today, this struggle is reflected in the division between the dominant, neoliberal agenda of service provision and the resistance offered by various critical perspectives employed by disparate groups of practitioners serving diverse communities. Critical social work challenges oppressive conditions and discourses, in addition to addressing their consequences in individuals’ lives. However, very few recent critical theorists informing critical social work have advocated revolution. A challenging exception can be found in the work of Cornelius Castoriadis (1922‐97), whose explication of ontological underdetermination and creation evades the pitfalls of both structural determinism and post-structural relativism, enabling an understanding of society as the contested creation of collective imaginaries in action and a politics of radical transformation. On this basis, we argue that Castoriadis’s radical-democratic revisioning of revolutionary praxis can help in reimagining critical social work’s emancipatory potential.
Hopefully we might spark together an engagement across youth, community and social work about the import of Castoriadis.
In the meantime I’ll begin my return to Castoriadis with two offerings. The first is this absorbing interview with the man himself from 1989.
The second is the stumbling effort I made back in 2010 to introduce Castoriadis to a wider audience. It appeared in Youth and Policy, 105, November 2010. Other thinkers featured in this series were Paolo Freire and John Holt.
INTRODUCTION For over 30 years Cornelius Castoriadis has done my head in! In the mid-70’s, being a pamphlet junkie, I could not resist his ‘History as Creation’, written under the pseudonym of Paul Cardan. Inside a few pages my head was throbbing. At the time I was a recent Marxist convert, bowled over by the sweeping explanatory power of Karl’s grand theory. To be honest, the last thing I desired was some little known dissident revolutionary sowing uncertainty just as I had discovered certitude. Here was Castoriadis casting doubt as to whether any social theory or political programme could hold the key to understanding humanity’s past, present or future. I was torn from his dangerous embrace by the damning verdict of my Trotskyist group’s leadership. He was condemned as being little better than a liberal, a revisionist undermining the historical mission of the working class. This scathing put-down touched the raw nerve of my own liberal wavering in the face of Leninist orthodoxy and discipline, so I internalized my misgivings. To my shame, for most of the next decade, Castoriadis was consigned to a cardboard box under the stairs. For my part I strove to be the dedicated Marxist youth worker, armed with the correct scientific analysis, committed to politicising work with young people.
However, my cry of ‘get thee behind me, Castoriadis’ did not spare me the questions posed by life to anyone arguing for the radical transformation of society:
To what extent do we have a real grasp of why people think and act in the ways they do? What do we mean by notions of individual and collective consciousness, by the very idea of personality?
And, given that ‘personalities’, amongst other things, are black, white, straight, gay, women and men, born into contending classes, how might they discover and act upon a common sense of purpose in all their interests?
How indeed might revolutionary social and political change come about? 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?” [1988a:33]
As a would-be agent of change, inside and outside of work, I wrestled with these fundamental dilemmas. Neither Marxism nor Youth Work provided convincing answers. Both fell short of comprehending the whole picture. Of course Marxism’s supposed commitment to class struggle as the motor of history seemed to resolve the matter. However, its singular failure to appreciate the individual in all her idiosyncrasy weakened its collective aspiration. As for Youth Work, its claim to be person-centred was built on the shakiest of foundations, an eclectic mix of generalisations drawn from a social psychology devoid of any sense of exploitation and oppression. Confronted with this divide I rushed from pillar to post, arguing in Marxist circles for the importance of individuality, ranting in the Youth Work milieu about the centrality of class conflict. Neither side was won over. It was the late 1980’s before I began to renew my acquaintance with Castoriadis and his fix on this mess of contradictions.
Ironically, whatever its rhetoric, state-funded Youth Work seems to have embraced with few tears the prescriptive agenda espoused until its recent demise by New Labour. In tune with the times, reflecting the widespread fatalism felt by so many, youth workers seem to be shrugging their shoulders in resignation at their situation. And yet, the struggle is not over. We do not need to accept the prevailing heteronomous view that human beings are the objects of history; that somehow we are nothing but pawns in the hands of a destiny determined either by God, Nature or the Global Market. In the spirit and pursuit of autonomy we must reaffirm that human beings create history. In doing so, therefore we know that the task is to nurture our striving to be individually and collectively autonomous. This never-ending process of mutual education will take place wherever we decide to give it a go – in the family, in school, in the workplace, within the community. It will be at its most intense in the collective passion of political struggle. Without doubt Youth Work can be such an arena, but it will be tough. Practitioners such as me have wasted perhaps more promising circumstances, but we can learn from the past if we are self-critical together. What’s certain is that isolated individuals will not reforge a creative and questioning youth work practice. For this task we need each other’s energy, analysis, experience, warmth, wit and humanity.
In his earlier writings, for instance, ‘On the Content of Socialism’, Castoriadis [1988b: 90-193] attempted to map out in detail the character of a future society, but over the years his work became more abstract. Nonetheless, David Curtis, his indefatigable translator, is right to stress the presence in his writings of the evocation of a way of living together that is cooperative and improvisatory, like the best kind of jazz or the finest moments in Youth Work! It is “a kind of life that does not deny rationality, planning and organising, but does not confuse the plan with living nor does it live for the plan.” [Foreword, 1988a: xviii] It is a kind of life that requires the passionate commitment of its participants. In his fondness for Greek sources Castoriadis quotes from the great chorus in ‘Antigone’, ‘there are many amazing phenomena, but none as amazing as the human being’. His emphasis on the heights to which humanity can climb contrasts with the sullen or complacent routine passivity prevalent today, summed up in the absurd adage, ‘nothing ever changes and nothing ever will’. As citizens and youth workers we must keep aflame a belief in the possibility of creating together a world that truly belongs to us all, the autonomous society of Castoriadis’ and our imagination. Indeed, in the last year or so the embers of resistance have been poked into life by the emergence of the In Defence of Youth Work Campaign, which asserts in the name of democracy and emancipation, ‘the essential significance of the youth worker, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious, yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people’ [IDYW: 2009 ]. I will leave the last word with Castoriadis himself.
“It is not what is, but what could be and should be, that has need of us.” [ 1997:130]
I’m pleased, even if the times seem dark, to have an article in this special edition of CONCEPT, the always challenging and diverse Scottish Community Education journal.
Entitled ‘The Decline of the Local Authority Youth Service in England – Reflections of an actor in its demise’ its conclusion written a few months ago is not too far off the mark.
Let me finish, though, on a fanciful if melodramatic note. Given the present political turmoil, it is possible that by the end of the year we will be governed by either an authoritarian, right-wing, populist administration or by a progressive alliance [Labour, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru] committed to a social-democratic programme of redistribution and renationalisation. In these contrasting scenarios, what price youth work, what price a Youth Service?
Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw, the editors explain:
This is a special issue of Concept which considers the changed and changing landscape of youth work in the UK. It includes contributions which take a backward look in order to locate present day developments, articles which reflect on contemporary themes, issues and practices, and interviews with current youth workers who are striving to manage the contradictions of politics and policy for young people, on the ground.
I’m really pleased to post this response to my piece, ‘Seizing the Moment’ from a dear friend and comrade of thirty years, Dave Backwith, author of ‘Social Work, Poverty And Social Exclusion‘. I do so late on a Wednesday evening, full of dread about tomorrow, but hanging on to hope.
As Ken Loach’s video says the UK general election on 12th December does indeed promise to be a Fork in the Road (https://twitter.com/kenloachsixteen/status/1204365910947061760) a game changer, one way or the other. It the Tories get a clear win we’re likely to have the most right-wing, anti-working class and racist government in living memory. And given the polls and the bile the mainstream media are pumping out, uncertainty about the result and what to do to try to influence it, is hardly surprising
But Tony urges us to seize the moment and vote to oust the Tories. Well, I would if I could.
I share much of Tony’s ambivalence towards Labour. But, like it or not Labour or, more likely, a Labour-led coalition are the only viable alternative to another Tory government – and we’ve had more than enough of them: ten long years!!!). That said, I’ve doubts about Tony’s conclusion that “We have a fleeting opportunity to close the era of social selfishness and launch a renewed era of social solidarity”.
One doubt is about the some of the limits of the ‘our’ much-trumpeted democracy and whether the election is likely to bring a government that can lead a shift from ‘social selfishness to social solidarity’. Like Tony I was pleased to see Akala and co’s letter and support the gist of it. But the fact is for a lot of people, whether they’ve registered and, if so, whether they vote, and who they vote for will make no difference at all to the overall result. Where I live the Tories had majorities of around 19-20,000 in both 2015 and 2017 – taking about 60% of the vote. In other words, if the ‘left’ parties formed an anti-Tory pact and they all backed the same candidate, the Tories would still win – comfortably. According to Wikipedia there were 172 safe Tory seats in 2010. Much of the south of England is so-called ‘electoral deserts’ where effectively the Tories face no contest. Of course, the electoral landscape is shifting and what were once taken for granted votes are no longer guaranteed. And, apparently, it is people on low incomes who are most likely to change their vote.
But as Clare Ainsley also argues (http://www.transformingsociety.co.uk/2019/11/27/class-still-matters-in-elections-but-its-changing-nature-needs-to-be-understood/) these working class votes have to be won and what matters most to them are incomes, welfare reform, housing and the NHS. In a country with 14 million people living in poverty, rising homelessness and ever starker inequalities that’s not surprising. Where these things come together is that for Labour to form a coalition government in which “which politicians listen acutely to the people and to each other” needs a social movement which addresses the issues which impact on people’s lives, mobilizes them and thereby offers a convincing prospect of radical change. I think Tony is right to emphasize that, ‘People-led change’ goes beyond voting and is built on, “ongoing involvement in politics, in the grass-roots struggles to transform our collective existence”.
Historically, it’s not hard to show that the Labour Party has never been about people led change and even at its reforming best (the 1945 government) has made top-down changes for people rather than leading a movement, or movements, of the people. Today, however radical Labour’s manifesto might be, there’s little sign of them leading a popular movement against neo-liberalism. I think Tony’s right to say that ‘Corbynism’ has rattled the establishment, hence the landslide of vitriol intended to discredit Corbyn. But that would flood of poison will be as nothing compared to what would be unleashed if he did become prime minister. To withstand such an onslaught the parliamentary Labour Party, and any coalition partners, would need to be rock solidly defiant and would need the popular, active support of poor, oppressed and exploited people. I don’t think that’s likely to happen but if it would be a start in making democracy real: by people struggling for control over their lives. That would definitely be a nail in the coffin of the selfish bullshit of neo-liberalism..
Back in 2015 Gus John took a breath at the age of 70, reflecting on fifty years of struggle. On the In Defence of Youth Work web site we observed, ‘Prof. Gus John arrived in the UK in August 1964, aged 19, to study for the priesthood. But almost from the moment he arrived he became involved in what was to become his life’s calling – education, youth work and the struggle for social justice and human rights for embattled communities as an activist and an academic.’
Thankfully Gus is still struggling and following his motto, ‘Do Right! Fear No One!’, he has resigned from his position on the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns in protest at Archbishop Welby’s endorsement of the Chief Rabbi’s condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. I hope you will find time to engage with his coruscating rebuke to what might be called ‘the establishment at prayer’ and its damaging intervention into the most significant election for decades – see my ‘From Social Selfishness to Social Solidarity’.
Corbyn and Anti-Semitism Prof Gus John answers Archbishop Welby
Of Stained-Glass Houses and Stones
On 26 November 2019, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, backed the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in his condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, stating that Mirvis’ criticism of Corbyn and the Labour Party should ‘alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews’. In response, Professor Gus John, independent consultant and a lay member of the Archbishops’ Council’s Committee on Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC)*wrote:
So, the jury has returned its verdict.
Jeremy Corbyn has failed the fitness to practice test. His fitness to lead the nation has been tested in his handling of complaints of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and he has failed that test. What is more, under his watch the Labour Party is suffering the ‘shame’ of being investigated by the government’s anti-discrimination watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
This is all most intriguing. Let’s take a moment to dissect it. Corbyn is considered unfit to lead a government because with him at the helm his party has failed to deal swiftly and decisively with the anti-Semitic conduct of a minute proportion of its members. This has cause hurt among the Jewish population and alienated Jewish supporters of Labour. So, Corbyn is presumed to be guilty of ‘joint enterprise’, because although he himself is a committed anti-racist and against anti-Jewish racism, by implication he has colluded with those who are not by failing to act decisively against them. As such, his is taken to be a failure of leadership in that he did not ensure that appropriate mechanisms existed within the Labour Party to deal with complaints of anti-Semitism in a timely fashion. But, the absence of such mechanisms and processes is an organisational and institutional issue. The matters being complained against and being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission are ones which are to do mainly with the conduct of individuals, whether they are rank and file members of the Labour Party or people holding official positions in the party.
Why this distinction? It seems to me that what is missing in this whole hysterical discourse which sounds increasingly like populism on speed, is that discrimination against any group or population in society who are rendered outsiders and not quite considered integral to the body politic typically manifests in at least four observable ways: structural, cultural, institutional and personal. In this case, the actions of individuals in the Labour Party and what those actions indicate about their attitudes to the Jewish community are considered to be indicative of an embedded culture of anti-Semitism within Labour, a culture presumably endorsed and sustained by Jeremy Corbyn, if only by his failure to deal with the people responsible for perpetuating it in a timely fashion.
So, the Chief Rabbi proclaims with all the authority that goes with his position that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to lead a government of a country in which Jews that have been so let down by him have to continue not only to live but to be full citizens. The actions of people within the Labour Party whom he has failed to deal with have caused the entire Jewish community to have cause to look over their shoulders as they go about their daily business and the responsibility for that must be laid at Corbyn’s feet. The sense I make of that is that combating racism and anti-Semitism will not be safe in Corbyn’s hands, so on 12 December, people should think carefully about what they do in the ballot box and let their conscience lead them, because if he has failed to do his duty by the Jewish community and to get that right, he surely cannot be trusted to get anything else right. The media on the other hand reacts to the Chief Rabbi as if he were the Pope, speaking for all British Jews as the Pope would for all Roman Catholics. Secular Jews and those who do not hold with the views of Jews for Labour are considered not to matter.
It seems to me that the Chief Rabbi and those powerful figures like the Archbishop of Canterbury who have weighed in behind him are being more than a little sectarian and establishing a hierarchy of oppression if they seriously expect the entire nation to judge Corbyn and his capacity to run the country for the good of all its citizens on the basis of their assessment of his performance in dealing with anti-Semitism.
This is all happening at a time when, despite the government and the media focusing on Brexit as the only show in town, people’s lives are being lost and their fundamental rights being trampled upon as a direct consequence of the government’s hostile environment. At a time when citizens of the African and Asian diaspora have to be constantly ‘looking over their shoulder’ for fear of being ambushed by border force apparatchiks, or by right wing vigilantes who appoint themselves as defenders of our country and its borders. At a time when employers, landlords, schools/colleges/universities, doctors surgeries, A & E departments and other health providers are being appointed without their say so as immigration officers and extensions of the UK’s border force under the Immigration Act 2016; when people who as young black men were harassed and criminalised by the police 40 years ago under the ‘Sus’ law are being told now that they are undocumented and they must leave the UK because they have a criminal record and have therefore forfeited their right to remain; when undocumented workers who having been denied benefits are having whatever earnings they derive from casual work confiscated as ‘proceeds of crime’; children being excluded from school for not having the proper uniform because they are being fed from food banks and their parents/carers cannot afford to buy the clothes and shoes that would make them compliant with the school’s uniform policy. One could go on.
I am not aware of the Chief Rabbi or/and the Archbishop of Canterbury alerting the nation to the quality of leadership that perpetrates and sustains such human rights violations. I have been an external examiner for colleges and universities for the last forty years. I have lived in the UK since 1964. I am to attend an examining board next week where a student will be defending her PhD thesis and I have been given strict instructions to make sure and bring my passport to prove I have the right to work, or else I won’t be able to present my external examiner’s report.
This is the state at structural level doing to sections of the population what the Chief Rabbi is accusing the leader of the Labour Party of being nonchalant about with respect to his party’s treatment of Jews. If the number of deaths in custody that the African community has suffered for half a century without a single police officer being found guilty of murder or manslaughter had occurred within the Jewish community, by now the entire nation would have been brought to a standstill. Given our interlocking histories on the axis of race, ethnicity and class in post-colonial Britain, no one group in the society has a monopoly on oppression, or on hurt.
And what gives the Archbishop of Canterbury the right to endorse the Chief Rabbi’s scaremongering about Corbyn and adopt such a lofty moral position in defence of the Jewish population? I have often had cause to wonder how it is that Justin Welby was made Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than John Sentamu. Sentamu consecrated Welby as Bishop of Durham in York Minster in October 2011. By November 2012, just one year after becoming a Bishop, it was announced that Justin Welby was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, though it was widely expected – in some circles at least – that Sentamu would get that post. Sentamu was a highly respected black senior cleric and had been a Bishop since 1996 and Archbishop of York since 2005, six years before he consecrated Welby a Bishop. It may well be that the appointments committee prayed and fasted and sought divine revelation before making their choice, so let me not gainsay the workings of the Holy Spirit! Be that as it may, if Anglicans in the UK from the African and Asian diaspora were to judge Justin Welby as the leader of the established church by the same criteria he appears to be employing in his assessment of Jeremy Corbyn, he too would fail the fitness to lead test. There are numerous reasons why Anglican clergy, laity and employees within the Anglican Church who are so-called black and ethnic minority don’t call out the Archbishop of Canterbury on racism in the church and its leadership, in the same way that he sees fit to join the orchestrated condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn. Maybe, just maybe, he has now given them permission to do so. Those who occupy houses clad with stained glass should perhaps be a trifle more careful when they join others in throwing stones.
Over the last few weeks I’ve discarded a number of responses to the fast-approaching General Election, fearing they were self-indulgent and added little to the overwhelming priority – to oust the Tories and to break from the selfish bullshit, that is neoliberalism.
At the heart of my abandoned efforts was a desire to explain my love/hate relationship with the Labour Party [LP] – from enthusiastic young canvasser in 1964 to being the committed Chesterfield delegate at the LP national conference in 1987 through to having little good to say about neoliberal New Labour for nigh on thirty years. All this was a preface to seeking to persuade you that I carried no naive torch for Jeremy Corbyn. This said, I did hope that something was on the move within the Party. The 2017 election LP comeback from the depths suggested that my fragile optimism should not be cast aside.
The passing years have dented inevitably my perspective. Whilst to be expected the coordinated mainstream media assault, from the Mail to the Guardian, on Corbyn’s character has been overwhelming. This pseudo-psychological narrative has so insinuated itself into people’s thinking that, for example, contributions on the youth work’s social media sites echo the fixation. Politics is reduced to personality. Corbyn’s dithering versus Johnson’s deceit is about as insightful as it gets.
Rarely do we find an engagement with the profound ideological, economic and political choice posed by this ‘snap’ election. On the one hand the Tories stand for a continuity with the ‘free’ market, dressed up in an authoritarian, populist, nationalist garb. The rich stay rich, the poor stay poor. On the other Labour aspires to resurrect afresh a social-democratic, redistributive agenda ‘for the many, not the few’.
To back the latter offers no guarantees, but it opens a door to possible progress that will be slammed shut if the Tories prevail.
This stark choice is caught in the following letter sent to The Guardian by leading contemporary musicians, about whose work I know little, but who represent certainly a significant current on the music scene.
We are musicians, artists, rappers and grime MCs, and we will be voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party this election. We’re not voting Labour in the naive hope that they will solve all the problems our communities face. We vote because they offer an urgent alternative to the destructive policies of the Conservatives.
Ending austerity will, for the first time in many of our lifetimes, use the taxes we all already pay into, to reinvest in the housing, youth clubs, community groups and cultural centres being destroyed by the current government. These spaces made many of us who we are today, and while we don’t rely on them like we used to, we know how important they will be for the next generation. It is only by restoring them that our communities can take charge of our own destinies, and build our own solutions to the problems we face.
We are under no illusions about Labour’s own imperial history, and we don’t think the British establishment is fundamentally going to change. But we are sick of our taxes being spent on fighting more wars and building more jails. Jeremy Corbyn has been one of the few people who has fought against injustice all his political life, from apartheid South Africa to the bombing of Libya.
To deny from our own, now quite comfortable places, that a Labour government would improve the lives of millions would betray the communities we come from. The opportunity for people-led change can be made possible under a Jeremy Corbyn Labour government. End austerity, rebuild our communities and take back the means to change our lives for the better.
Surely, in an election that could transform the livelihoods of many, and be the difference between life or death for many more, life is something worth voting for. Join us. Register to vote before midnight on Tuesday 26 November. And vote Labour on Thursday 12 December.
I don’t think they exaggerate, whether talking about life or death in the present or the future. Crucially they recognise that a vote for Labour is no more than the start, a Labour victory merely the beginning. People-led change requires our ongoing involvement in politics, in the grass-roots struggles to transform our collective existence.
Even as I pen the phrase, a Labour victory, I falter. Calling for a vote for Labour in England, exceptions such as the Greens in Brighton aside, is utterly understandable, but what about the situation elsewhere in the disUnited Kingdom? Two interrelated concerns colour my sense of what best to do. Firstly the bottom line is that we rid ourselves of the Tories and break from the Thatcherite legacy of self-centred individualism. Secondly I am deeply at odds with the idea that Labour is the sole repository of compassion and justice, a form of ‘monopoly radicalism’. It is caught in the leadership’s dismissal of a post-election progressive alliance, involving, say, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. My heresy is that I feel a coalition government led by Labour, within which politicians listen acutely to the people and to each other, would be an important step towards a more democratic British politics.
Since 1979 we have endured the conscious undermining of our commitment to one another, of our belief in the common good. We have been coaxed and cajoled into being first and foremost passive consumers rather than critical citizens. Since 2008 neoliberalism has been a broken model, but the vision of ‘another world is possible’ seemed to be beyond us. It is clear that the totally unexpected election of Corbyn to the Labour leadership shocked the status quo. Put aside, for a moment, the inevitable criticism that the LP leadership could have done this, that or the other better, the orchestrated, toxic campaign against Corbyn in particular has ironically little to do with the supposed weakness of his character or his alleged virulent anti-semitism. It has everything to do with the challenge posed to the ruling class or elite, if you prefer, by an economic and political programme focused on social equality and social justice. Such a proposal is an anathema to the most influential fractions of the powerful.
At this juncture the choice is plain, even if the consequences depend critically on our political involvement beyond the polling booth. We have a fleeting opportunity to close the era of social selfishness and launch a renewed era of social solidarity.
Sitting in my simple, but comfortable house set beautifully, even romantically on a Cretan hillside it is easy to turn in on myself, to indulge my narcissistic desires. And, yet with all its dilemmas my access to social media precludes my withdrawal from reality. Over the last few days harrowing stories of the plight of refugees on the Greek islands have emerged afresh out of the silence imposed by the mainstream media’s short-term attention-span.
Just the other day Symi, a small island in the Dodecanese, a haven of mine 30 years ago as I escaped every summer my paid labour, saw 400 refugees arrive. The mayor Eleftherios Papakaloudas at his wits end cried, “children are sleeping on the streets, wandering, crying. There is no doctor, there is no food. The people depend on the kindness of the local tavernas. The government is not interested.’
Whilst, feeling hopeless, easing my conscience by donating to the Dirty Girls of Lesvos, I came across the latest piece to flow from the always challenging pen of Hans Skott-Myrhe, entitled ‘Homeless Young People under 21st century Capitalism are Disposable!’
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, we are surrounded by reports and images of abandoned and neglected children worldwide. From images of drowned immigrant children in Europe and the U.S., to young people in cages at the U.S. border, and youth living on the street in barrios, favelas, ghettos and urban centers across the planet, the 24-hour news cycle presents us with a flood of images demonstrating, in the harshest terms, our social brutality towards the next generation.
We have great rhetoric about the importance of young people as the future, but just as we seem to have lost interest in genuinely caring for the future in ecological terms, we also seem to have lost interest in caring for the next generation. There appears to be a cynicism driving my generation that precludes taking the necessary material actions necessary for care of anything or anyone other than ourselves. We go on and on about the importance of “self” care, while abandoning any “other” to the whims and mercies of a rapidly deteriorating social and biological milieu.
Drawing on Giorgio Agamben, Hans ponders whether ‘in our current system of unbridled and ever-proliferating erosion of material care for living things, including young people, I have to wonder how many of us and the next generation have become “bare life.” – bodies that can be killed [or I would add, forgotten and utterly ignored] without transgressing the laws of 21st century global capitalism.
There are powerful hints that we have entered a new era of feudalism in which the wealthy decide who and what is valuable and worthy of continuance and support. As the late Toni Morrison said in a conversation with Angela Davis, we have moved from being citizens to becoming consumers and in that shift we have lost our sense of collective force and accountability to each other. Our worth is no longer measured in terms of our social contribution, but only in terms of our ability to generate wealth for the ruling class.
And what of those bodies that fall outside the parameters of wealth generation? What of those whose skills and inclinations don’t fit within the system of perpetual training and a seemingly endless conveyor belt of low-wage jobs? Those bodies whose families already face the social devastation of addiction, the corruption of generational care, the violence of endlessly deferred expectations? The young people whose hopes and expectations are bound to a world already past or a world that has not yet arrived?
These are our homeless children and youth. Some of them literally without a home, living on the streets or shifting from place to place without stable or safe shelter. But these are also those young people seeking asylum, bodies flowing across borders, forced into refugee camps and subject to the bullets and bombs of those who seek death for death’s sake. These are the ways that we treat the next generation as disposable bodies, as bare life. But they are not and never have been disposable or dispensable. They are valuable beyond measure. They are us and we are them and if we are to avoid extinction, we must affirm the living force we share together.
Hans Skott-Myhre is a professor in the Social Work and Human Services Department at Kennesaw State University, is cross-appointed to the graduate program in psychology at the University of West Georgia and holds appointments at Brock University and the University of Victoria.
I’m pleased to have played a part in persuading my dear friend, Bernard Davies to enter the world of blogging. Indeed I’ve lent a helping hand in setting up the blog, ‘Youth Work’s Living History’.
Find below the opening post, which outlines the reasons behind Bernard taking this step into the contrary world of social media.
Introducing the Blog
YOUTH WORK (DE)CONSTRUCTION – UPDATED
Doing the research for my book, ‘Austerity, Youth Policy and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England’; actually writing its 100,000+ words; and then waiting for it to find its way through the publishers various editing and production procedures – all that took well over two years. Given that the book’s main focuses are a constantly evolving educational provision and practice set within wider policy contexts which also change all the time, it’s hardly surprising that nine months after it was finished some of its content has been overtaken by events – by new facts on the ground, shifting ideas and priorities, re-considered analysis, revised perceptions and interpretations.
So… as an alternative to even contemplating a ‘sequel’ which would itself also soon fall behind the times, what follows is the first of (hopefully) a series of occasional pieces on one of the areas covered by book which in my judgement merits – needs – ‘updating’ and even perhaps extending. By the very nature of the exercise, how often these will appear is unpredictable since – a key defining feature, surely, of any ‘living history’ – researching and then writing them will depend not just on when but also if significant relevant events, proposals, pronouncements etc occur.
Topics which however could justify and so would get similar attention might be:
Young people and their ‘condition’
Other youth policies and provision, including what I call in the book ‘gestures policies’
NCS and ‘youth social action’
The voluntary and community sector
Youth work training and qualifications.
As my plan is also from time to time to update the updates, critical feedback to email@example.com or via the Comments facility is welcome and indeed needed – not least on gaps, new evidence (with sources) and examples (with where appropriate quotes and again sources).
It may be too that I begin to post some of my past writing, which seems to retain a measure of interest and relevance.