I have said my piece in my contribution to the In Defence of Youth Work website. As it is I will be making a flying visit to attend the celebration and hope to meet up with folk, old and new.
Further to my self-centred announcement of my 75th birthday, the following seeks to offer an insight into the tribulations plus a number of images of the celebratory event held at our house. I’m hoping that doing so might kick-start me into renewing the momentum of this blog. We will see. Perhaps predictably I’ve found myself in the past few days, as befits my three scores and fifteen, dwelling upon the question of what I’ve been up to in my life. Living in the birthplace of Western philosophy demands such reflection. For now, though this musing remains hazy in keeping with me being dazy for the past week or so.
My dazed condition dates back to an alarming moment when, on a longish journey home, the brakes on our stalwart Suzuki car failed. One tortuous way and another we limped to the garage where the dear girl, 22 years old was declared beyond repair. With the birthday bash only two days away, without transport, our predilection to be anxious reared its nagging head. Fortunately, neighbours and friends came to our aid as we remembered, yet again, something else we had forgotten, notably, παγάκιa, the essential ice cubes. The temperature was forecast to be 32 degrees.
Not a single eddy disturbed the tranquil opening to Sunday itself. Not a wisp of a breeze could be discerned. Only the animated birdsong and a cock crowing pierced the silence. It was going to be bloody hot. The start of the evening’s delights would have to be delayed. Nevertheless, the first task if we were to be ahead of ourselves was arranging the seating. Over 40 chairs had been begged and borrowed. Being diverse and inclusive by nature rather than being in thrall to some Johnny-come-lately Human Relations influencers, we refused none on the grounds of shape, size or colour. Thus, when completed, the eclectic composition of kαρέκλες fitted perfectly the natural amphitheatre provided by our back garden. We were pleased with ourselves which was to be our undoing.
Despite the resplendent garden defying our horticultural ignorance, Marilyn ventured that a couple more bursts of colour wouldn’t come amiss. All the more so as our neighbourhood pine marten seemed to take great pleasure in digging up and destroying the prettiest of our flowers. Despite it being the day of repose Mark and I volunteered to go in search. Intuitively perhaps we knew. The charming little florist in the next village, Vamos, was indeed closed. However, opposite was situated the seductive sight of the Mosaico cafe. It seemed irreverent on a hot Holy Day not to seek refreshment. Two pale ales and toast later we realised we best return at speed except we were empty-handed. In a last throw of the dice, we dashed to nearby Kalives where alas the florist was also closed. Yet two rows of plants had been left outside on the narrow pavement and this was Crete. Thus I chose two colourful offerings, nipped into the next-door craft shop where I left the money owed in the helpful hands of the unphased, artistic owner. Σε ευχαριστώ πολύ.
Mutterings aside and acknowledging the flowers in hand, Marilyn and Sara forgave our boyish antics but nonetheless, the preparations had been concertinaed. Before we knew where we were, folk were arriving, not least Maria Manousaki and the band, Hot Club de Grece. In fact, these brilliant musicians were no trouble, escaping into the shade to practise together.
As for ourselves, our brains fled to the mountains. We forgot all sorts – the aforesaid ice, the bread, the prosecco, the beers and much more. If we’d ordered pies, them too, for sure. Meanwhile Francesca, in charge of the canapes, was serenity itself. Whilst Linda, Lizzie and Marie recognising our plight mucked in on plying guests with drinks and nibbles.
As for Marilyn and I being by default master and mistress of ceremonies we sought to pull ourselves together, to stop being mard-arsed. Marilyn floated amongst our guests, exuding welcoming warmth. I ventured to the front of proceedings with an eye on a retreating, still blazing sun, ready to capture the audience’s attention. In doing so I set aside half a century of experience. It was my wont never to speak publicly without rehearsing, indeed almost memorising the script I had written in long hand. Thus armed, I scarcely ever looked down at my scribbling. I strutted the lecture and conference hall with confidence.
Yet there I was without a note in my hand. The rest is an embarrassing blur. I said something about being fortunate to grow up at a time when, under proletarian pressure, Capitalism had made a number of profound concessions to the working class, notably free education from cradle to grave. I muttered something about education being to do with the creation of questioning, active citizens, not the indoctrination of obedient, passive consumers. I declared that we were at a crossroads in a clash between the struggle for authentic democracy and the imposition of technocratic authoritarianism. All of which needed much explanation. It was neither the time nor place but whenever is? Time for a ditty though?
Thus I sang ‘Ol’ Man River’, a song of age, conformity and resistance with a falter before intoning Paul Robeson’s rewriting of the closing lines – ‘I’ll keep laughin’ instead of cryin’, I must keep fightin’ till I’m dyin’. At the end of which I departed dizzily stage left without even introducing Maria, Yiannis, Antonis and Georgos, the Hot Club. Fortunately, there was no need for such niceties. From the first strum, la pompe, the voices of violin, guitars and double-bass intertwined seemingly effortlessly in a tour de force of jazz manouche. We swung and were captivated.
At the break Marilyn and I had decided, given our advancing years, to allow ourselves a nostalgic glance back to growing up in Lancashire, sitting in front of the telly watching the comic films of Gracie Fields and George Formby.
Hence I began by singing our Gracie’s signature tune, ‘Sally in our Alley’. It is now claimed there wasn’t a dry eye in the garden. Tears of emotion or laughter, we shall never know.
After which I was joined by the Backyard Boys, Phil on ukulele, John banjo and Ian washboard to deliver George’s greatest giggle of a hit, ‘Leaning on a Lamp-post’. Their consummate backing was much admired. As was Phil’s account of a touching poem penned by Linda Manousaki.
Maria and the Hot Club opened the second set by generously accompanying my effort to do justice to a popular Greek number, ‘Τι είναι αυτό που λένε αγάπη;’ translated as ‘What is this thing called love?’. I will take solace in the fact that Anastasia was impressed with my performance. Once I was out of the way Maria and the Hot Club returned us to the joys of their musicianship.
It was at this point that Marilyn and I cast off our cloak of anxiety, tried to stop stressing and sought to bask in the atmosphere of shared pleasure created in our idyllic back garden. To add to our delight the band played her special request, ‘Misty’. At the end, rapturous applause rang down our lane and folk went their separate ways.
At a pivotal moment when the ruling class would like to divide us and consign us to a virtual world of their making, a collective experience created by improvisatory live music cocks a snook at the powerful. It belongs to us and no one else. Our gratitude is due to everyone for being involved in all manner of supportive and helpful ways. On the Sunday itself, we vowed ‘never again’ but with each passing day our affection for the occasion grows. Whatever transpires in the future as the old song goes, ‘Thanks for the memories’. The struggle ever continues but between whom?
Many thanks to Xavier Rouchaud, Sara Gilding and Rod Waters for the atmospheric photos.
Our bucket collection raised 325 Euros towards Medical Aid for Palestinians. Much appreciated.
Thanks to Rod or not as the case might be – Leaning on a Lamp-post live from Gavalohori with the Backyard Boys! Eat your heart out, George.
In the last few days, I’ve been trying to finish one last piece [for now?] on the ‘pandemic’ – a list of questions I’ve asked myself over these painful two years. I’ve set these thoughts aside. It is surreal to scribble in the abstract when resistance becomes real. A massive convoy of trucks and heavy goods vehicles has arrived and is arriving across borders and states in Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. The truckers, applauded and joined by thousands of Canadians in the teeth of the elements. are on the one hand protesting against vaccine mandates. On the other, they are heading a wider movement of opposition to the undemocratic imposition of enforced restrictions on society as a whole.
Outside of Canada the silence hanging over this remarkable surge of collective action is shattering. We ought to be shocked yet it is no surprise. Even as the mainstream COVID narrative unravels the media remains in denial – best not to cover this remarkable story at all. Inside Canada, the Prime Minister and former World Economic Forum Young Leader, Trudeau, aided by the press and television, sneers at the truckers, no more than a fringe irritant and smears them as misogynist and racist. In his eyes, they are backward, prejudiced and, heaven help us, disobedient.
As best I can tell at this moment the Left [whatever that quite means today?] is yet again nowhere to be seen. Some time ago, a long time ago, you might have expected the Left to welcome the spontaneous rise of struggle from below, even if it then desired to become its leadership. Today all bets are off. In truth I’m not sure what the Left would see as an authentic expression of the resistance of the ‘demos’. In the truckers’ case, they may be persona non grata as their union bureaucracy condemns them. Perhaps the Left, abandoning the notion of contradiction, paints remarkably the blunt truckers as self-centred individualists and sophisticated Trudeau as the voice of the collective, the greater good.
For what it’s worth I salute the truckers, expelled from Facebook as I write. I salute the thousands of their supporters. From what I can gather their occupation of Ottawa seems overwhelmingly cooperative and communal, even joyous. If I dare quote Lenin in a rare, romantic moment, it is ‘a festival of the oppressed’. I want to believe that if I was in Canada I would move heaven and high snow to be in Ottawa tomorrow, answering the call for a multitude on the streets. The more who are there, the less chance of violent reprisal. I remain anxious as to how tomorrow might play out.
I accept utterly you might be wary of my rose-tinted version of events. Who am I listening to? Well, for one, I’m listening to this Ottawa resident, a data scientist called David Maybury – see his blog, The Reformed Physicist. I’m copying in full his post yesterday in the hope you will read it.
A night with the untouchables
I live in downtown Ottawa, right in the middle of the trucker convoy protest. They are literally camped out below my bedroom window. My new neighbours moved in on Friday and they seem determined to stay. I have read a lot about what my new neighbours are supposedly like, mostly from reporters and columnists who write from distant vantage points somewhere in the media heartland of Canada. Apparently the people who inhabit the patch of asphalt next to my bedroom are white supremacists, racists, hatemongers, pseudo-Trumpian grifters, and even QAnon-style nutters. I have a perfect view down Kent Street – the absolute ground zero of the convoy. In the morning, I see some protesters emerge from their trucks to stretch their legs, but mostly throughout the day they remain in their cabs honking their horns. At night I see small groups huddled in quiet conversations in their new found companionship. There is no honking at night. What I haven’t noticed, not even once, are reporters from any of Canada’s news agencies walking among the trucks to find out who these people are. So last night, I decided to do just that – I introduced myself to my new neighbours.
The Convoy on Kent Street. February 2, 2022.
At 10pm I started my walk along – and in – Kent Street. I felt nervous. Would these people shout at me? My clothes, my demeanour, even the way I walk screamed that I’m an outsider. All the trucks were aglow in the late evening mist, idling to maintain warmth, but all with ominously dark interiors. Standing in the middle of the convoy, I felt completely alone as though these giant monsters weren’t piloted by people but were instead autonomous transformer robots from some science fiction universe that had gone into recharging mode for the night. As I moved along I started to notice smatterings of people grouped together between the cabs sharing cigarettes or enjoying light laughs. I kept quiet and moved on. Nearby, I spotted a heavy duty pickup truck, and seeing the silhouette of a person in the driver’s seat, I waved. A young man, probably in his mid 20s, rolled down the window, said hello and I introduced myself. His girlfriend was reclined against the passenger side door with a pillow to prop her up as she watched a movie on her phone. I could easily tell it’s been an uncomfortable few nights. I asked how they felt and I told them I lived across the street. Immediate surprise washed over the young man’s face. He said, “You must hate us. But no one honks past 6pm!” That’s true. As someone who lives right on top of the convoy, there is no noise at night. I said, “No, I don’t hate anyone, but I wanted to find out about you.” The two were from Sudbury Ontario, having arrived on Friday with the bulk of the truckers. I ask what they hoped to achieve, and what they wanted. The young woman in the passenger seat moved forward, excited to share. They said that they didn’t want a country that forced people to get medical treatments such as vaccines. There was no hint of conspiracy theories in their conversation with me, not a hint of racist overtones or hateful demagoguery. I didn’t ask them if they had taken the vaccine, but they were adamant that they were not anti-vaxers.
The next man I ran into was standing in front of the big trucks at the head of the intersection. Past middle age and slightly rotund, he had a face that suggests a lifetime of working outdoors. I introduced myself and he told me he was from Cochrane, Ontario. He also proudly pointed out that he was the block captain who helped maintain order. I thought, oh no, he might be the one person keeping a lid on things; is it all that precarious? I delicately asked how hard his job was to keep the peace but I quickly learned that’s not really what he did. He organized the garbage collection among the cabs, put together snow removal crews to shovel the sidewalks and clear the snow that accumulates on the road. He even has a salting crew for the sidewalks. He proudly bellowed in an irrepressible laugh “We’re taking care of the roads and sidewalks better than the city.” I waved goodbye and continued to the next block.
My next encounter was with a man dressed in dark blue shop-floor coveralls. A wiry man of upper middle age, he seemed taciturn and stood a bit separated from the small crowd that formed behind his cab for a late night smoke. He hailed from the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. He owned his own rig, but he only drove truck occasionally, his main job being a self-employed heavy duty mechanic. He closed his shop to drive to Ottawa, because he said, “I don’t want my new granddaughter to live in a country that would strip the livelihood from someone for not getting vaccinated.” He introduced me to the group beside us. A younger crowd, I can remember their bearded faces, from Athabasca, Alberta, and Swift Current Saskatchewan. The weather had warmed, and it began to rain slightly, but they too were excited to tell me why they came to Ottawa. They felt that they needed to stand up to a government that doesn’t understand what their lives are like. To be honest, I don’t know what their lives are like either – a group of young men who work outside all day with tools that they don’t even own. Vaccine mandates are a bridge too far for them. But again, not a hint of anti-vax conspiracy theories or deranged ideology.
I made my way back through the trucks, my next stop leading me to a man of East Indian descent in conversation with a young man from Sylvan Lake, Alberta. They told me how they were following the news of O’Toole’s departure from the Conservative leadership and that they didn’t like how in government so much power has pooled into so few hands.
The rain began to get harder; I moved quickly through the intersection to the next block. This time I waved at a driver in one of the big rigs. Through the rain it was hard to see him, but he introduced himself, an older man, he had driven up from New Brunswick to lend his support. Just behind him some young men from Gaspésie, Quebec introduced themselves to me in their best English. At that time people started to notice me – this man from Ottawa who lives across the street – just having honest conversations with the convoy. Many felt a deep sense of abuse by a powerful government and that no one thinks they matter.
Behind the crowd from Gaspésie sat a stretch van, the kind you often see associated with industrial cleaners. I could see the shadow of a man leaning out from the back as he placed a small charcoal BBQ on the sidewalk next to his vehicle. He introduced himself and told me he was from one of the reservations on Manitoulin Island. Here I was in conversation with an Indigenous man who was fiercely proud to be part of the convoy. He showed me his medicine wheel and he pointed to its colours, red, black, white, and yellow. He said there is a message of healing in there for all the human races, that we can come together because we are all human. He said, “If you ever find yourself on Manitoulin Island, come to my reserve, I would love to show you my community.” I realized that I was witnessing something profound; I don’t know how to fully express it.
As the night wore on and the rain turned to snow, those conversations repeated themselves. The man from Newfoundland with his bullmastiff, a young couple from British Columbia, the group from Winnipeg that together form what they call “Manitoba Corner ” all of them with similar stories. At Manitoba Corner a boisterous heavily tattooed man spoke to me from the cab of his dually pickup truck – a man who had a look that would have fit right in on the set of some motorcycle movie – pointed out that there are no symbols of hate in the convoy. He said, “Yes there was some clown with a Nazi flag on the weekend, and we don’t know where he’s from, but I’ll tell you what, if we see anyone with a Nazi flag or a Confederate flag, we’ll kick his fucking teeth in. No one’s a Nazi here.” Manitoba Corner all gave a shout out to that.
As I finally made my way back home, after talking to dozens of truckers into the night, I realized I met someone from every province except PEI. They all have a deep love for this country. They believe in it. They believe in Canadians. These are the people that Canada relies on to build its infrastructure, deliver its goods, and fill the ranks of its military in times of war. The overwhelming concern they have is that the vaccine mandates are creating an untouchable class of Canadians. They didn’t make high-falutin arguments from Plato’s Republic, Locke’s treatises, or Bagehot’s interpretation of Westminster parliamentary systems. Instead, they see their government willing to push a class of people outside the boundaries of society, deny them a livelihood, and deny them full membership in the most welcoming country in the world; and they said enough. Last night I learned my new neighbours are not a monstrous faceless occupying mob. They are our moral conscience reminding us – with every blow of their horns – what we should have never forgotten: We are not a country that makes an untouchable class out of our citizens.
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.
|Age||Peak Case Fatality Rate in winter 2020||Case Fatality rate in June 2021|
|<20||4 in 100,000||4 in 100,000|
|20-29||14 in 100,000||20 in 100,000|
|30-39||8 in 10,000||5 in 10,000|
|40-49||2 in 1000||1 in 1000|
|50-59||8 in 1000||3 in 1000|
|80 or above||33%||15%|
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.
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?”
Age Infection Survival Rate of COVID [STANFORD STUDY ON COVID INFECTION MORTALITY RATES – A study by Cathrine Axfors and John P.A. Ioannidis from the Departments of Medicine, of Epidemiology and Population Health, of Biomedical Data Science, and of Statistics, Stanford University, July 2021
70+ 97.6% (non-inst.)
70+ 94.5% (all)
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.
In 2016 within a chapter entitled, ‘The impact of neoliberalism on the character and purpose of English youth work and beyond’ we felt able to recycle the judgement once more.
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.
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.”
Their demands included:
- 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.
The In Defence of Youth Work campaign, of which I was the coordinator has just hosted a Zoom Seminar on Resistance. My dear friend, Sue Atkins opened the event with a tour de force on the 3R’s – Resistance, Rebellion and Revolution. to be found on the IDYW web site. Other contributions will appear in the next few weeks. All of these in different ways pose the question of how we resist the closing down of alternative, dissenting voices in reactionary circumstances.
By coincidence I discovered belatedly the other day an on-line version of the special exhibition, ‘Women in the Miners Strike 1984/85′ which is being hosted in the National Coal Mining Museum. It contains an essay on the significance of women in the Great Strike, photos and a video.
Download the exhibition essay here
By twist of fate Marilyn and I found ourselves involved closely with the women of the Derbyshire coalfield. Part way through the strike we had moved from Leicestershire where we had been members of the ‘Dirty Thirty’ Miners Support Group to Chesterfield. Marilyn was caught off guard, not being a miner’s spouse, by the invitation to join the Chesterfield Women’s Action group. The women decided her heart was in the right place and ‘with her being a clever lass who could type’, she became the Minutes Secretary. It’s a matter of great historical and political regret that the tapes of the meetings she kept were lost.
As for my part I took up the job of Community Education Officer for the district, which contained, amongst others, the Bolsover and Shirebrook collieries. Going to work on my patch meant running the gauntlet of police harassment. In Shirebrook itself the old primary school had been converted into the food distribution centre, housing the supplies brought in solidarity from near and far. At the end of the strike such had been the immense contribution of the women – organising the canteens, ‘womanning’ the picket lines and speaking eloquently from the platforms, here, there and everywhere – the school was transformed into the Shirebrook Women’s Centre, offering a creche run by qualified staff and a diverse programme of workshops and activities. I was proud to have my office tucked away on the first floor and privileged to be swept away in the energy of the first few years.
Inevitably as the neoliberal project to undermine traditions of solidarity and community deepened its hold on society even this partial gain was to disappear, all the more so as employment prospects in the coalfield communities dwindled.
Where is this perhaps romantic nostalgia leading? For now it renders me obliged to visit afresh the legacy of neoliberalism’s ideology of self-centred individualism and to explore whether we are in transition to a form of technocratic capitalism, an anti-democratic rule by experts. In doing so the crucial question is to ponder how we resist collectively the conscious closing down by the powerful of our relationships with each other in the personal, social and political sphere? To be melodramatic how do we fight back against an assault on our very humanity?
Whether I write anything of use is quite another matter but I’ll give it a go.
In the meantime the women and men of the Strike remain an inspiration as does the very best of a youth work practice that knows it does not know what is best.
Thanks to Dave Dronfield for the photos.
I was 73 yesterday, no great age nowadays in the Western Empire, at least unti the arrival of COVID-19. Would-be friends ask of me, ‘why don’t you settle for a quiet life?’ Marilyn found this lovely poem, to which I’ll keep returning as the years roll by. The poet is Brian Bilston, who can be found at https://brianbilston.com/about-brian-bilston/
Brian Bilston is a laureate for our fractured times, a wordsmith who cares deeply about the impact his language makes as it dances before our eyes.’ Ian McMillan
AS I GROW OLD I WILL MARCH NOT SHUFFLE
As I grow old I will not shuffle
to the beat of self-interest
and make that slow retreat to the right.
I will be a septuagenarian insurrectionist
marching with the kids. I shall sing
‘La Marseillaise’, whilst brandishing
homemade placards that proclaim
‘DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING’.
I will be an octogenarian obstructionist,
and build unscalable barricades
from bottles of flat lemonade,
tartan blankets and chicken wire.
I will hurl prejudice upon the brazier’s fire.
I will be a nonagenarian nonconformist,
armed with a ballpoint pen
and a hand that shakes with rage not age
at politicians’ latest crimes,
in strongly worded letters to The Times.
I will be a centenarian centurion
and allow injustice no admittance.
I will stage longstanding sit-ins.
My mobility scooter and I
will move for no-one.
And when I die
I will be the scattered ashes
that attach themselves to the lashes
and blind the eyes
of racists and fascists.
The following piece was written a few weeks ago for inclusion in a CONCEPT Covid-19 special. Its opening is overtaken by events. As I write the unlocking of restrictions here on Crete gathers pace. Yet tension prevails. We wish to mingle, but with whom? We were safe on our island. We need tourism to survive, but do we fear the tourists? More than ever we need philanthropy, a love for our fellow human beings, solidarity not charity, but the virus in the hands of the powerful feeds misanthropy and xenophobia. I’ll try to tangle with this dilemma in the next week or so and pursue my call for resistance to either ‘business as usual or a ‘new normal’ – within and without of work
A virus-created radical moment: Not to be missed?
I am sitting in splendid isolation on a lush hillside above a Cretan village, where even the patriarchal kafeneio is closed. Outside its shuttered face a group of old men sit, less than socially distant, defying spasmodic police surveillance. A few kilometres away people queue obediently outside the supermarket, clutching in their plastic gloved hands the required Out-of-Home pass and their ID. There are health concerns, even though the island of 650,000 souls has precious few Covid-19 cases and only one death, but such melancholia is hardly new. Crete is awash with chemists, testing one’s blood pressure a daily routine. Notwithstanding the benefits of the Mediterranean diet it’s tempting to note that Hippocrates hailed from hereabouts and that hypochondria stems from Ancient Greek.
There is real fear, though not so much of the virus per se but of what lies ahead. As I write the island is closed for business. The tourism-oiled life blood of the local economy congeals. With cafes, tavernas, hotels, even beaches, empty of purpose, unemployment and debt soars. The Orthrus-headed threat of poverty and hunger hangs in the air. The questions on everybody’s lips are ‘when will this end?’ and ‘will we, do we, want to return to normal?’ At this moment, if assuredly we are not all in this together, from capitalist to peasant, humanity faces a fragile future.
For now, it’s ironically common-place for commentators to write that the neoliberal obsession with the free market and the self-centred individual has been utterly exposed. In this profound social crisis society turns to the public, not the private sector. Society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur. Capitalism’s endless pursuit of profit and growth is shown to be at odds with the common good and at odds with Nature itself
Against this tumultuous backcloth what are the alternatives as and when the virus loosens its grip? Three perhaps stand out on the grand canvas.
I. Despite the rhetoric that this is impossible, there will be an almost irresistible desire to return to normal. Even though this sordid ‘business as usual’ has created widening inequality – the world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much as 6.9 billion people – and life-threatening climate change.
2. And if, as is likely, this return to the status quo fails amidst what is speculated to be a second Great Depression of recession and austerity, there is the ever-present danger, as we bow to increased surveillance and policing, that an authoritarian, xenophobic politics with strong men at its helm moves to centre stage.
3. The third possibility depends on us. Are we able to build afresh on the recognition that we are essential; that our labour is the bedrock of society? Are we able to hold onto our renewed community experience of mutual aid and solidarity?
To wonder if the latter is possible brings us inexorably to the matter of consciousness. Do the circumstances thrust upon us herald the fulfilment of the revolutionary dream, the emergence of a people, conscious of themselves as the creators of history? Half a century ago as Cornelius Castoriadis revealed presciently neoliberalism’s moneyed ‘meaninglessness’, he posed the question, “to what extent does the contemporary situation give birth in people the desire and capacity to create a free and just society?”
Speaking of which brings me to the part that youth and community workers might play in the renaissance of collective, reflective solidarity. At its best, the radical tradition contesting the ideological space to be found within our practice has been founded on critical conversations and supportive relationships through which we are as much educated as those we aspire to educate. This is a dialogue riven with moments of intimate democracy, listening to one another, as the foundation of an authentic public democracy.
Alas, over the last 40 years we have been on the retreat. The agenda of social conformity has been strengthened immeasurably by the imposition of prescribed, predictable targets and outcomes, aimed at manufacturing the compliant and resilient individual. Pressured practitioners have sought to make the best of a bad job. However, certainly in England, a generation of workers in their acceptance of the planned interventions demanded from above have cooperated with ‘formalising the informal’. For my part, the recuperation by neoliberalism of even radical elements in our practice is symbolised by the now ritual abuse on all sides of the notion of empowerment, whereby we accept without demur the absurdity that the powerless can be empowered by the powerful.
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.
To find out more about my love of Cornelius Castoriadis see as a starter.