Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Narrow margins & hollow victories

Blogging is slow this week - work issues have preoccupied me. A couple of big things have been in the offing - contracts up for review and renewal - and fortunately it would seem that I have managed to pull them off.

This feels good -  not in some hideous Gordon Gecko sense that it is high fives and bonuses all round - but because it ensures the security and survival of some of the blokes here. The socialist in me makes me wary of the motives of any businessman but in all honesty I can say  the driving factor for us, and I suspect a lot of small-ish, craft-ish business, is not to make profits but simply to keep carrying on with what we are doing.

The laws of the market however are not conducive this; they demand that businesses continually up their ante. When we go for new work ,or have to jump through hoops to maintain existing work, we are always expected to demonstrate 'MORE'. An increasingly common scenario of 'shit or bust' where we are obliged to pitch for all or nothing of the business.  

On one of these contracts we were only told after the event how close we came to loosing all of our current  work, built up over ten years,  to a very much bigger multinational competitor. With it would have gone six jobs here.

Thankfully it didn't go that way - this time -  we actually won more work, in fact all the work. So instead today somebody else is figuring out how to lay-off six other guys in another similar studio. Isn't capitalism wonderful ?

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Three ages of Labour

Over at A Very Public Sociologist there is a debate on the prospects for Labour following the author's resignation from the Socialist Party to join Labour. I like the blog, and I like the extremely honourable way in which Phil has left the SP without any of the personal vindictiveness that usually seems to characterize these divorces on the Left. In fact he gives a very fair and honest view of life in the SP and his reasons for leaving. 

But I still think he is wrong about the prospects for Labour. Very wrong. There's no end of serious analysis of this over in the comments section at AVPS  - and I'm not going to add it here. But I will offer a very personal view of my own experience of Labour's trajectory over the past thirty years:

As a child I grew up in Staines where the (then) industrial belt of West London meets Surrey suburbia. It was a pocket of white working class affluence wedged in between poorer and more ethnically diverse Hounslow and more leafy middle class Runnymede. Mum and Dad were Labour people - at various times, party activists, trade unionists, school governors and local councillors. None of this seemed particularly political, it just seemed natural. Although as the seventies gave way to the eighties it did dawn on me that Labour people were the ones who had values, who cared about the health service and education and who weren't snobbish or aspirational yuppies. But when I discovered politics properly as a teenager it seemed natural to rebel against my parents so I was involved with CND and briefly flirted with the YCL.

By the time I came of age politically with the Militant, I was a student and Thatcherism was at full swing. In Cambridge the Labour Party was all pervasive and I was immersed in it - serving for a brief stint on the CLP executive. Any local campaign or activity was swamped by familiar faces from the local party. Going to the monthly GMC meeting the delegates from all the trade union branches in the city attended and actively participated - in fact you could pretty much meet the entire local labour movement in that one room. The only exceptions were a few old Stalinists from the CP and some sectarian nutters from the WRP who had a base at the engineering factory. Strange to think of it now, but the SWP were largely absent.

Fast forward to the present day and life in Tottenham. In the twenty odd years I have lived here, which conveniently parallels the whole rise and dominance of New Labour, the Labour Party has become invisible. After a succession of local campaigns and disputes I simply cannot recall having seen a Labour Party banner or any other visible presence. In fact  here they are the natural party of government; more often than not they represent the 'authority' against which the campaign is directed - whether it's the poll tax or the closure of yet another council service. In fact whenever a Labour activist (and I'm not sure that is even the correct term these days) is seen, they neither look nor sound like the people around here. They are invariably white middle class interlopers in an area that is solidly working class and officially the most ethnically mixed part of the country.  There is also a constant transitory trickle of SWP members, largely students, and a more constant hardcore of anarchist activists. Neither is rooted in, or really representative of, the local community. At the moment there is only a handful of Socialist Party members. That is what 'a vacuum on the Left' looks like up close.

I was never expelled from the Labour Party, I just left - it seemed natural to do so after the focus had turned elsewhere by the time of the poll tax campaign. My last connection with Labour was severed when my parents - now in their eighties - resigned from the party in disgust at what it had become. Why anyone would even consider travelling now in the opposite direction defeats me.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Mexican revolutionary prints

Another sneaky lunchtime cultural escape from an otherwise shitty day at work: to the British Museum for the 'Revolution on Paper - Mexican Prints 1910-60' exhibition. It's a small (and free) two-room show but very powerful.

The combination of print-making and radicalism personally makes this a must-see. I knew something about Diego Riveira and Freida Kallo but the other artists - mostly members of the TGP -  the People's Graphic Workshop - were new to me.

I was struck by a couple of things - the essentially democratic and populist nature of the work of these graphic artists  - posters, leaflets  and murals, as opposed to the essentially intellectual and private nature of  'fine art'. And the uniquely Mexican nature of their styles - combining European trends of surrealism and futurism with folk traditions.

And whilst I also like the classic early Soviet graphics I can't really see them working as tattoo's - on the other hand some of this Mexican stuff would be perfect ...

Monday, 15 February 2010

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

From H-Ds latest ad, the new 48 Sportster looks suspiciously similar to the same styling direction my own bike has taken over the past few years.

Cynics will say that it is just another attempt to launch a 'new model' which is nothing more than a bolt-together exercise from the spares bin. Or that the factory are just copying what riders have been doing themselves for years. All of which is no doubt  true - and with many precedents in H-D's history.

Most significantly though it's clear from the ad that H-D are after a new demographic - hipster Geneartion-X.  These beautiful people are not much in evidence at any Harley gatherings that I go to. But I have to acknowledge that the more usual types -  both the authentic grizzled veteran hard-core and the wannabe concho-ed mid-life crisis-ers - have   a limited life expectancy, and if biking isn't going to die out it needs  to reinvigorated.

I reserve the right to change my mind though when we start seeing seeing all the metro-sexual Hoxton-ites riding around on Sportsters ...

Thursday, 11 February 2010

SWP squabbles and life on the Left

I'm not going to gloat or over-analyze  Lindsey German's   falling-out with Martin Smith and her resignation from the SWP. Or speculate  that a factional split may now be imminent: I don't share the SWP's political  analysis and I find their tactics, and often the behaviour of their members, embarrassing and irritating for the rest of us on the Left. But in the great scheme of things they are not the enemy -  and life is too short.

From the sidelines I find it quite difficult to see exactly what their factional differences are - as AVPS says there doesn't appear to be a clear fault line in terms of deep differences of analysis or a specific tactical decision. Certainly not as there was with ourselves in the Socialist Party in the early 90's. It just seems to amount to a classic clash of personalities and styles - or egos.

Doubtless this will be discussed to death - but not here I'm afraid. However it does give me pause to think in much  more general terms about  just why so many on the Left are often so vicious to their own comrades.

Part of it comes from  a sense that the movement is more important than the destination - in other words that the main motivating factor for some individuals is  living the life of a party activist rather than achieving those political goals that presumably brought  them there in the first place. This seems to be characteristic of, although by no means exclusive to, activists who come to the movement from middle class backgrounds: A sub-species who like to romantically picture themselves as uncompromising Robespierres and then construct a whole little world around this fantasy where every bit of petty  bickering takes on an historic importance and provides an opportunity for martyrdom.

More controversially I think that all of us in the Marxist tradition  sometimes have a fatal attraction for the language and cultural references of 80 years ago that are not only irrelevant but are  positively an encumbrance today. The polemic style of the Bolsheviks may have had its place in a group that often operated in exile and underground and for much of the time didn't have to wash their dirty linen in front of a literate working class with a strong democratic tradition and a media that permitted instant global communication. 

Ironically it is us Marxists who are supposed to be the ones who understand the dynamics of history yet we also tend to be the most conservative in how we run our organisations. Maybe we should all be thinking about what democratic-centralism means in the 21st century.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Toyota Prius & musings on alienation

I wash my bikes most weekends. I'm not overly fastidious about clean bikes - quite the opposite - but it is a part of the maintenance routine. And Harleys are by modern standards fairly high maintenance machines - I will usually find something that needs tightening or adjusting. But they are also imminently fixable - which is why people keep them for many years - and of course the passion of ownership that surpasses all logic. 

My car on the other-hand - a very ordinary Focus Diesel - tends to be ignored other than very occasionally checking the oil or topping up the screen wash. When I open the bonnet everything is neatly boxed in plastic and I struggle to even identify the engine components. Should something go wrong I simply take it to a dealer who has the electronic diagnostic tools. Much like my laptop - it is a magical black box beyond my comprehension.

This lack of connected-ness from technology is a form of alienation. Robert Pisrig talked about it in Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance and it is an ever growing phenomenon in our digital 'post industrial' society. Or less pretensiously - the world is becoming less and less real and we are getting less and less personally involved in the things that surround us.

The present Toyota scandal* is a case in point - and the Prius is a symbol of this alienation. The hybrid car is so complicated that it is beyond the scope of the home mechanic to look after it or repair it. Its computerised systems switch from electrical mode to petrol mode - and judging by the problems cited in the factory re-call it will have a pretty good go at driving itself whether you want it to or not. 

And on another level it divorces the owner from taking moral responsibility  - simply buying one is enough and the car will do the rest for you when it comes to minimizing your environmental impact. If that sounds over the top then consider the bizarre situation in California where owning a Prius has become a must-have accessory if you want to be accepted as a socially responsible citizen - but at the same time  actually walking anywhere on foot marks you out as either barkingly eccentric or part of the underclass.

I may have oil permanently under my finger-nails and I may be constantly moaning about something that needs fixing - but I know that there is a fair chance that my bikes will outlive me. They won't suddenly try to ride themselves whilst I am seated on them - and when they do they fail I can fix them myself or at least diagnose the problem and take them to someone who can. I will also even acknowledge that from time to time the best option is to get off my arse and actually walk somewhere - for  my own sake and the environment.

* If you want some background on big business' callousness  over safety in the automotive interest then seek out the 1991 film 'Class Action' - a thinly disguised dramatisation of the Ford Pinto scandal in the seventies...

Monday, 8 February 2010

Palliative history,

Sunday evening television is traditionally deemed to be a time for comfort viewing - Lark Rise To Candleford, Midsummer Murders, Kingdom and Doc Martin. A reassuring and cozying taste of a Britain that never was and never is. 

The latest big historical project from the BBC - David Dimbleby's Seven Ages Of Britain fits very  comfortably into this slot. More appropriately titled 'Dimbleby looks at some old stuff' the series has shamelessly pinched its name from a Channel 4 series of a few years ago: 

The earlier series was proper history - looking behind the familiar British  landscape to reveal its man-made changes from the end of the hunter gatherers of the Mesolitihic to the enclosures of the Eighteenth Century. It reveled in the not immediately apparent; that the 'wildernesses' of Dartmoor and the Shetlands were once economically  thriving regions, that the quintessentially English countryside of fields and hedgerows is a comparatively recent artificial and highly poiliticised construct; and that the great forests were equally artificial proto-theme parks for the leisure class.

Dimbleby's series on the other hand reveled in restating the bleeding obvious. A middle ages that was all about knights and ladies, castles and chivalry. So Dimbleby  trots about looking for  examples of objects that confirmed that indeed this is what things looked like in 'days of yore'. And for some reason interviewing a present day Knight Of The Garter, a delusional retired major who seems to think he is a successor to the handpicked henchmen of Edward II. Or a sweet elderly couple who are equally delusional in thinking that they are just like Edward I and his queen Eleanor. 

Tellingly, Dimbleby's main focus was on Richard II and his role as patron of the medieval arts. Undeniably Richard was responsible for a lot of the nice things that Dimbleby clearly likes looking at, but significantly no mention was made that, by the standards of medieval kingship, he was a complete political disaster. He might have invented much of the courtly tradition that makes up the popular image of the middle ages but he failed in the main job of a monarch at that time - keeping a precarious balance of power with the  nobility on whom the entire fabric of feudal society rested. The political turmoil that resulted  from this failure was a factor in the peasants' revolt and  was then  expressed over a couple of generations as the Wars Of The Roses. Richard II's  failure ultimately resulted in his being held hostage in Pontefract Castle by these nobles - and  a decidedly unchivalrous  end when he was starved to death. But clearly this wasn't deemed a suitable thing to mention on a Sunday evening.

A better understanding of the period could probably have been had from watching the first series of Blackadder or Monty Python's Holy Grail. Terry Jones is at least a proper medieval scholar and showed his fundamental insight into those times with the immortal line 'he must be a king - he isn't covered in shit'...

Friday, 5 February 2010

Theocracy in practice

Ironic: My last post referred to a 'get out of jail card' for religious believers and then along comes a story about Cherie Blair in her capacity as a part-time judge giving a suspended sentence to Muslim Shamso Miah for breaking the jaw of a man in a queue-jumping argument -  on the grounds that 'You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour'.

From the Islamophobes this will doubtless provoke an 'it's political correctness gone mad' bleating about special 'treatment' for Muslims. But for us Humanists  it throws up a couple of serious concerns. 

Presumably any atheist who has  received a harsher sentence for the same offence will now have grounds to appeal on the  grounds of discrimination. 

Most of all we again have to suffer the smugness of religious-types assuming that they hold the monopoly on a moral compass. That kind of thinking has a deep hold on society as a whole - how often do we  hear that  its said that churches or faith schools may preach some nonsense but at least they give  kids 'values' ?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The pope and the right to discriminate

I know it's an obvious gag but someone's got to make it: 

Apparently the Catholic Church is concerned that new employment equality legislation will stop them discriminating against gay, lesbian and transgender people when  appointing clergy and  lay staff -  funny I thought they had being doing some pioneering work in that field for centuries ...

But there is a serious side to this - the extent of Catholic bigotry is evident in the Pope's  denunciation of the legislation as violating 'natural law'. As happened with the adoption by gay couples issue, doubtless the church will claim some sort of special dispensation . 

To accept such an exemption would make a travesty of equality rights -  belief in the supernatural cannot be used as a get-out-of-jail-card: 'Sorry your holiness I thought you were just a common or garden  reactionary old bigot but as I see you claim divine inspiration for your discrimination that's a different matter altogether - carry on'.