ON BEING MADE REDUNDANT

It is not a pleasant occasion. You are asked to attend a meeting. In my case I asked if it could be by phone. I sort of guessed what it might be about. You are told you are being made redundant. Actually it wasn’t that simple. I was offered nine (yes NINE) hours work next year and was advised that I’d therefore be better off going for redundancy. The reason? Simple. Redundancy pay is calculated on the previous year’s hours. I had more than a hundred hours last year. NEXT year – pretty well inevitably – I would be given the push anyway and my redundancy pay would be calculated on nine hours.

To explain: I was an Associate Lecturer at Plymouth University. Sounds posh, but I can assure you it isn’t. Its a zero hours arrangement. There are no guarantees of work the following year, no sick pay if needed, no holiday pay, no pension and no other rights that salaried staff expect. For many Associate Lecturers there is no redundancy pay either. Mine was based on the fact that I worked for the university for a very long time. One of the higher-ups was obviously on my side pointing this out to me. Management’s ploy to get rid of me as cheaply as possible was thus foiled.

My first employment for the university was in 1992 – not long after it became a university rather than a polytechnic , although I only did a few hours that year. I remember it well. I was brought in to talk to students about graphic scores. However, my hours increased very quickly and by 2000 I was doing over 300 hours annually. There was a reason for this. I was offering and delivering a set of skills that was unusual: experience in improvisation, a solid knowledge of 20th century music, composition and a detailed knowledge of folk music. I’ll blow my own trumpet just a little here: it is not usual to find this combination of skills and experience in one person although individual specialists in each separate field could no doubt deliver what I did.

I developed a taste for university lecturing. I felt I was good at it, and student feedback seemed to confirm this. Back then music was an option on the education degree. In time, however, the idea arose that music could be a degree course on its own. This was down to the vision and commitment of the then Head of Music. He had no full timers other than himself and a technician. But he had great belief in employing part-time hourly paid staff, and this was for good reasons. Firstly, such people are not full time salaried staff and are therefore pursuing their own careers. Thus they bring a freshness and a sense of active involvement. Second, they are affordable – as opposed to creating a full time salaried post with full benefits and pension. Mind you, I have encountered envy or sheer bloody nastiness about the position of Associate Lecturers – from salaried lecturers at that. But let’s leave that where it belongs…

I always wished for a full-time post, but as there was plenty of work I was happy to do what was offered. When the degree course was in the planning stage I was one of the people that was called in and consulted about what it should consist of. I remember long discussions with our Department Head in which I offered many suggestions. The new course was his baby, no doubt about that, but it is no exaggeration to say that I made significant contributions.

Having established the course I was prominent in delivering it. This often involved unpaid hours – and plenty of them. I took students to perform in festivals. I worked beyond paid hours in rehearsals. I sat (unpaid) on a committee planning the university’s contemporary music festival. And more, much more.

More recently I initiated the university’s Music Week, a festival-come-showcase which I organised unpaid in its first year, and in its second year received an extremely small payment to organise it again. It was a real success with big audiences and fabulous music events. This was in May 2018. By July I had been made redundant.

My long-term commitment, professional and informed delivery are not in question. Everyone tells me that, as if that makes any difference. So why has this happened? The short term answer is quite simply: student enrolment has been falling somewhat disastrously. However, this is a poor excuse that doesn’t look at the root causes.

Over the last ten years (ish) the university has created full time posts, duly advertised and with the predictable long lists of applicants. Actually there was no reason for this. The combination of a committed Head of Department, a good technician and a team of excellent Associate Lecturers had been delivering a strong and dynamic course for some years. It merely needed to continue doing do or – God help us – maybe promote one (or more) of the part-timers who helped plan the course and were delivering it so successfully.

But, of course, there’s more. Government funding to universities was drastically cut under the Tories more or less at the same time as student fees skyrocketed to £9000. The result was that universities needed to attract the income that government cuts had withdrawn. Therefore the competition for students was intense. In a shift that all universities (especially outside the Russell Group) were forced into the entry qualifications for students plummeted to almost nothing. In music, for example, there were no longer auditions and no interviews to speak of. It is true that in more recent years a Head of Music interviewed some prospective students by Skype (!) but the general level of experience, musicianship, and broadness of view in new students quickly became a disaster area. The tiresome cliche of bedroom metal guitarists who could not read music and were not really interested in any other kind of music became horribly true. (I have nothing against metal music, but when it is the only show in town I get bored, and even more bored by the kind of young musician who has little curiosity about anything else.)

The real problem with accepting any applicant who has a pulse is that the general standard dips, and excitement around the course diminishes. Word gets around. A music course that once had kick and charisma gradually looses these qualities and thus lacks the magnetic attraction it once had.

So its the government’s fault. Well, largely but not entirely. Another factor in the dumbing down and potential demise of some subject areas is the rise of middle management as the powerhouse of policy and decision making. If student numbers dip the robots note it. If they dip too far something must be done. If student feedback is critical alterations must be made. One year a handful of students said there was too much classical music in the course. There wasn’t. There wasn’t enough. But that was their perception. So middle management tampers with perfectly good modules. The result? A lessening of depth and quality – but Heaven forbid that these should matter in the slightest in the brave new neoliberal universities governed by robots and tick sheets. The students, who I generally really like, are the ones that suffer.

All courses, clubs, institutions, projects (whatever) go through peaks and troughs. To shed valued staff just because you’ve hit a trough is unenlightened in the extreme. To make student retention a matter for neurotic obsession is just plain stupid. To care more about tick sheets than the content of the modules is pure barbarism and does not deserve the name of “education”. Yet this is the state we’re in, certainly in the Arts and Humanities. It is a national problem. It is a cultural problem. It is a failure of nerve on the part of Higher Education. Given the mess we’re in there should be multiple protests, urgent meetings, even strikes about something other than lecturers pay and pensions. Not that these are unimportant but if there is a hierarchy of issues the nature and delivery of education should be top of the list.

Students are not allowed to fail. If you actually fail you must be trying hard to do so. Re-sit tasks (easier than the failed ones) give second chances. Marking of work – even if it really is crap – is generally pegged above the 40% fail level. Student retention is king. I recall one of the best courses I ever knew (at the late lamented Dartington College of Arts) in which shedding a half dozen or more students after the first year was routine. Not every course is for everyone. You have to see how it feels. Once you’ve got rid of the ones that would be better off elsewhere you have a solid second year of committed, clued-up students.

So my redundancy merely illustrates the dreadful state we’re in. Given my quarter of a century of dedication it does hurt somewhat. That’s for me to deal with. But over and above that it just makes me very, very angry that Higher Education, which used to be something I believed in, has fallen at every hurdle put up by the neoliberal, monetarised, commodified culture we laughingly call democracy. It is now, alas, finished in the UK. Can it rise again? Not under neoliberal values of numbers, results and their common tendency to blandness.

From managers and accountants
And tick sheets and robots
Good Lord deliver us

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The Cultural Failure of Brexit

THE CULTURAL FAILURE OF BREXIT

 

What is most heart-breaking and but also rather disgusting about brexit is the cultural shrinkage it implies – the narrowing of purview, a colonial attitude to “foreigners”, a rejection of any sense of solidarity or unity with them, an overdose of Britain-firstism which is more than the name of a far right political party. It is also an undercurrent rumbling behind the entire Leave position. It’s what it’s really about.

Unlike Trump who lacks so much subtlety that he openly pinned his electoral campaign on the American version (“America First!” – said twice for emphasis), here in the UK we are more duplicitous and perhaps even slightly shame-faced. It’s only our outright fascists that have Trump’s lack of inhibition or awareness about how they come over. UK pro-brexit people, rather, hide their primitive nationalism behind the economic or political arguments. It reminds me of the old days when men claimed to buy Playboy “for the articles”.

Brexit involves three dimensions – economic, political and cultural. They are, of course, interrelated. The issue of the Irish border, for example, is political but cannot be divorced from economic matters. But despite the crossovers and blurry areas economics, politics and culture can still be clearly delineated.

In the world of media and, indeed, most political commentary it is the economic dimension that gets the most attention. The Leave attitude is that we want out but don’t want it to inconvenience us although it doesn’t matter how it affects the other 27 Johnny Foreigners. Nearly every news broadcast or discussion programme focuses on trade, the conditions of trade, the nature of different kinds of markets, who is negotiating which trade deals with whom, opening up trade markets outside the EU, going to China, and so on. Many of us, of course, regard the process of brexit with apprehension mainly because we fear its short and middle-term effects. But it is worth remembering that there is also a long view. The histories of economies show that peaks and troughs, booms and slumps, do happen. From the eighteenth century South Sea Bubble via various panics, the 1930s depression, the oil crisis of 1973, to the 2008 financial crisis, it is clear that recoveries do occur – after which, of course, it is only a matter of time before some other factor prompts the next downward move in the cycle. Capitalism is not a stable system, but then, one suspects, nor are any. Brexit may be set to herald a difficult patch, but whatever happens in the short term it is almost certain that in time necessary adjustments will be made and life will continue limping on its usual crutches. If there is a post-brexit period of discomfort, which is not unlikely, no one can predict how long it will last but (cold comfort) it will doubtless blow over and something vaguely functional will emerge in time. The economic arguments one way or the other are, thus, not really the main event no matter how much politicians try to convince us that they are. We will survive.

What of political arguments? Well, it’s all about the “unelected bureaucrats” isn’t it. Interestingly enough the same complaint is heard from both the right and the left and is often somewhat wild and undirected. On the occasions when its aim is more credible it is usually aimed at the European Commission. However, the widespread idea that the EU is run by a supposedly faceless undemocratic body is miles wide of the mark. The European Commission debates, proposes, keeps reins on the budget, suggests policies, but does not pass laws. Its function is that of an overseer not an unelected dictator. It is a kind of elaborate board of directors led by a College in which there is one member for each member country. Yes, these are appointed rather than elected, but as they have no governmental power there is nothing sinister here. It is actually not a bad system as systems go. The European Council, which consists of legitimately elected national leaders from the member states, does have a little more legal power but although it makes proposals it can’t make laws on its own. That leaves the European Parliament which does debate and pass laws and consists of elected MEPs, so nothing sinister there either.

But all this is a red herring. For those who are worried about unelected nasties having undue influence the members of the EU’s various bureaucracies are hardly the illuminati. Why do the brexiteers not fulminate against unelected press magnates, unelected bankers, unelected finance houses, unelected corporate business people, unelected global CEOs and the rest? Their influence is far more profound. Especially those on the brexit left should surely understand that the EU is a relative innocent in the field of unelected faceless bogeymen.

And then, from the left, there’s always mention of Greece, There you are, see – the people of Greece voted for socialism and the nasties of the EU wouldn’t let them have it. The answer to this is that, unlike the UK, the Greek economy had been tanking for years and in 2015, when Tsipras become Prime Minister, it had a complex of problems including looming default on debt, 25% unemployment, widespread poverty, inadequate health services and a high infant mortality rate. This is not comparable to the UK in living memory. The Troika that put the screws on Greece, incidentally, included the International Monetary Fund which is not only an EU partner. It is based in Washington DC and consists of 189 members countries. We don’t see the Leavers suggesting we leave the IMF…

The economic and political arguments for or against should not, of course, be underplayed. Their effects will be the most immediately felt by all of us, but, in the end, they are smokescreens for the grudgingly insular mentality of brexit which is rarely commented on but drives its campaign relentlessly and impenetrably and, incidentally, is the major source of the racism that has arisen post-referendum – and anyone who denies this is either not looking or is not affected by it because they’re British through and through don’t you know.

Brexit bears some comparison with the Reformation, the effects of which have lasted nearly five hundred years. Undeniably, many positive effects stemmed from the Reformation, but a broadening of outlook in relation to the rest of Europe was not one of them. Before Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and throughout the Middle Ages, Europe was remarkably international and that included England despite all the water around us. For example, scholars knew each other’s work – partly due to the fact that they all wrote in Latin – and travelled to centres of learning frequently. The break with Rome was accompanied by a fervent concentration on things English and may well have been the first signs of the Little England mentality that has drearily persisted to the present. Brexit may well have a similar historical longevity. It is not only about the details of material life. It is also about a means of perceiving the world, a mind-set which finds expansiveness invigorating as opposed to the contracting, enervating self-righteousness which is at the core of Leave.

Our debates about brexit hardly ever mention thinkers, political and social theorists, creative makers, leaders of culture, the extraordinary achievements of hundreds of years of the arts in Europe, the diversity of folk and popular expressions and so on. When Britain joined the Common Market in 1973 it did not merely join an economic organization concerned with trade and little else. Rather it finally saw the potential dissolution of centuries of conceptual cultural boundaries dating back, in some cases, to the Reformation and certainly the results of ridiculous wars. The idea of the Common Market was not to remove regional distinctiveness, but to participate in it via unrestricted travel, twinning schemes (which now have an EU budget of around 12 million euros), public art to mark twin town links, educational exchanges, cultural schemes such as Creative Europe, the UK’s Euclid agency (giving advice and contacts throughout the EU), the Erasmus Programme and many more. These areas of life are precisely those that suggest vision, imagination, humanity, mutual respect, even peace – for goodness sake! They are expansive. They are multinational and international, the up-side of globalism, as opposed to the revival of colonial attitudes that we now see as our politicians do their undignified dashes round the world procuring replacements for Europe and pretending to like the Chinese. “Others” are good for trade, good for “us” on the material level although little else. Trade, economics, politics – yes, self evidently, they are crucial, but no more or less so than culture. And it could be argued – and I would – that culture might, at root, be the leading edge. Yet after less than half a century, a tiny amount of time in the development of culture, we’re now gearing up to commit the most unenlightened, desperately blinkered act of messy unctuousness imaginable. Shame on us.

And as we disappear up our proverbial it is worth noting that in January 2018 Jean-Claude Junker launched the European Year of Cultural Heritage in Belgium. There will be thousands of events, workshops, civic ceremonies, arts, performances, commissions and exchanges all over Europe aiming to involve as many people as possible from all walks of life. There’s money behind it too. Creative Europe has so far stumped up 201.4 million Euros for the years from 2014 to 2020. No doubt we’ll be noted by our absence, off with our snotty noses in the air feeling virtuous and British.

 

 

 

 

The Future: Democracide, Death Row or Rebirth.

“Shall we blast or shall we build?”

So ran the final line in an old CND anthem written in 1958 by science fiction writer John Brunner and much sung on anti-bomb marches. Here’s more; the message, in many ways, remains relevant.

Time is short; we must be speedy
We can see the hungry filled
House the homeless, help the needy
Shall we blast, or shall we build ?

At the outset of the 21st century a number of writings were published arguing that in the century ahead there would be a stark choice. If we dealt with pressing issues such as climate change, the environment, the oceans, the bees and butterflies and harness the positive power of new technologies then the 21st century  could be the turning point towards a wonderfully Utopian human life on Earth. If we didn’t, then we’re fucked. A good example of the genre was the very readable The Meaning of the Twenty-First Century by James Martin and published by the extremely worthy Eden Project. (I see you can now get a copy for 1p on Amazon…)

More recently there has been a small trickle of works presenting a similar death-row or rebirth scenario from a radical left viewpoint. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future (Verso 2015) is a good example. They argue that the technology now exists, or could easily be developed, to do away with most of life’s drudgery thus enabling a move to a postcapitalist future without work. The estimable Paul Mason certainly agrees with the postcapitalist formulation, as is well outlined in his Postcapitalism, A Guide to our Future (Penguin, 2016).

Either-or scenarios are notoriously rigid, black and white with no grey. For the most part we humans muddle through. If we get an idealistic bee in out bonnet and enact it on a mass scale it usually leads to social, human and even economic disaster. On the other hand, a lack of idealism produces a cloying, nihilistic mess – which is not an unfair description of what we have now in many Western countries. Also, of course, a lack of idealism nearly always benefits the status quo which, in turn and by definition, tends to the right rather than the left.

However, for all that either-or discussions of the future, dystopia or utopia, can be hard to negotiate and make credible, there is, I believe, a special urgency to them right now in an era which is witnessing the death of the expert, almost total digital mediatization and the disruption of many political, social and even personal certainties. These are, of course, all of a piece and could potentially usher in an atrophy of meaningful democracy, a situation in which the most democratic ideas actually lead to their own withering away. I call it democracide.

Germany, perhaps still the most noted example, committed democracide in 1932, 3 and 4, when democratic elections which were played by the rules actually enabled Hitler to take office despite never having a majority against his main opponent Paul von Hindenburg. Hitler, of course, then abolished the position of President and replaced it with Furrier. And the rest really is history.

I cite Hitler simply give an extreme example of democracide. Despite scare postings on social media, our situation is not directly comparable with the 1930s, although it is true that there are parallels that give cause for thought: governments targeting the most vulnerable, the rise of a working class right-wing given voice and legitimacy by populist denouncements of the political class, nationalism…Historically, however, and in the cause of verbal accuracy we should be wary about labelling all this “fascist”. Until a right wing military haunts the streets, until even just the semblance of democracy is abolished, until the role of Prime Minister is replaced by an authoritarian dictator, until there is a political philosophy that favours certain races and classes and denigrates others (and so on) we should probably hold off on the F word. Ghastly though fascism is, it is by no means the only repressive socio-political scenario of the right; its enormous disadvantages in the 21st century are twofold. First, our collective historical experience of the 20th century means we can “see it coming”, although it is true that the lessons of the past can remain unlearned no matter how tuned in to them we might appear to be. Second, and more importantly, it demands an actual abolition of the last vestiges of democracy, incomplete and increasingly imperfect though it may be. In a breathtaking paradox, it is the very groundswell of what passes for democracy (let’s just say Trump, Brexit) that would prevents it from being taken over by obvious dictators.

In any case, if we are searching for the real dangers, the destabilisers of today, scraping the historical barrel for faint traces of fascism isn’t really where its at. Trump, and for that matter Farage, is a symptom, not a cause. The cause is elsewhere, much deeper and more elusive. It lies somewhere between the Internet, total digital mediatization and the death of the expert and/or truth.

Maybe we can start with social media – interestingly and maybe ironically enough because if you read this blog it will either be on its own WordPress website or on Facebook. From being a thinking person with no voice and no outlet (because I’m not on the press and media gravy train) online technology now enables me to write this, and you to read it. So far so good – the enabling, democratising power of digital media – or so we are often exhorted to believe.

There’s another side to this though: it is often vulgarly said that opinions are like arseholes – everyone has them. Or to put it differently, there is no online filter that lets you know whether my particular opinions are worth reading or not as opposed to the many thousands that are now available to you. In fact there’s an enormous load of drivel out there, and some very unpleasant drivel at that.(Of course, I have to concede that to some people my opinions too will be drivel.) The cultural and practical difference between this online present and the recent past is very simple. Off-the-wall opinions (much, much more off-the-wall than mine) were generally accessed in some fairly remote ways where most people didn’t go, notably, for example, in those wonderful, pokey little alternative bookshops that were found in most cities and gave you a thrill of subversion just to walk through the door. These tended to be “anarchist” or left-wing bookshops, the right-wing not usually being quite as articulate and up front. But there were right-wing pamphlets issued at one time by the likes of the BNP, the National Front or – further back – the British Union of Fascists or the Mosleyite Union Movement. They were distributed on the streets, at meetings and surreptitiously in schools. In comparison to online culture these obscure little enclaves – left or right – remained outside the everyday experience of the majority. By contrast an opinion expressed on Facebook, Twitter or whatever, as we all well aware, can go round the world as soon as it is posted. It can stimulate threads in which opinions are challenged, explained or amplified. The role of the “experts”, therefore, is vastly reduced and compromised. We all pitch in.

All this, of course, is familiar, but it needs to be acknowledged that one of the root causes of the death of the expert (probably the most significant cause of all) is the way digital technology has had the effect of legitimising all opinions, all views no matter how odd, iconoclastic, dangerous, idealistic, nasty, informed, ignorant , peaceful, warlike, wise or unbelievably stupid. In this situation it is easy for the likes of Trump or Farage or Le Pen to peddle a dangerous dope – the fearlessly stated, supposedly hitherto unexpressed views and feelings of the voiceless ones, the common if a little conservative folk who only want to make a living and do the right thing in the face of interference and corruption on the part of “them” – the political class or the liberal politically correct left. This constitutes another paradox. The views of this newly empowered democratic populectorate, expressed via its votes for demagogues, short circuits and backfires into a kind of non-democracy. Trump spent millions convincing his supporters that he was just an ordinary guy like them. Jimmy Carter in 1976-7 spent the tiniest fraction of Trump’s (or Clinton’s) amount of money. His campaign didn’t have money, not on that scale. I’m not arguing for a return to the good old days when presidents only had a relatively small budget. I am saying that the situation is now totally out of hand, entirely a media (and very much a digital media) event, with no integrity, and yet rumbling away in Trump’s camp was the notion of the ordinary guy. The absurdity is staggering.

The death of the expert, however, is not merely related to politics alone. You even find it in the very places where you might expect to find actual real experts – in universities and colleges. Although universities are always keen to trumpet the research profiles of their staff (and thus show how many experts they employ and therefore get more money) there has increasingly been a disconnect between this and what happens on the coalface, as it were – teaching undergraduates in particular. Making sure that students’ tasks fall easily within their grasp, underplaying levels of expertise, “democratising” knowledge, making the acquisition of knowledge and educational experience subservient to student retention and employment prospects – all this puts the experts in a strange position. They are supposed to know their stuff but they’re not supposed to show it in case it scares someone off.

Many teachers now find that their students check their facts on Google and even come back with alternatives. Is it entirely churlish to resent this? After all, facts is facts and we’re all entitled to know them and get them right. Yes perhaps, but what is to be made of the piano student who checks everything their teacher tells them and comes back saying there’s another way of doing it to the point where there’s no way to proceed? Or, from my personal experience, what of the piano student who watches YouTubes of performances of the piece he is learning, thus making it harder for me to encourage a search for his own interpretation? For that matter what do we make of conversations which flow nicely until one of the company gets on the phone or their laptop to check the facts? I once went to a folk singing session and contributed a song only for one of those present to look it up on their phone and tell me I’d missed out a verse. I really, honestly did want to take their phone and stamp on it.

All this, of course, illustrates the self evident fact that our lives are now digimediatized pretty well constantly. Half the people you see in the street, and most on railway stations, are on their phones. The mobile phone is a novelty not a necessity although few now can see it that way. The idea that we should be available twenty-four hours a day means that basically we now live in public, in a kind of public mediasphere, in which privacy, private thoughts and the inner life are increasingly buried deeper. On Facebook we mourn the deaths of the famous, a kind of cyber-grief that has very little substance other than nostalgia. We outrage at what our political opponents are doing and procure a load of “likes” but what effect does this have on any actual real world situation? Probably very little…

The situation is even more complex, more existential than this. The cyberworld is not a place; it is not a family; it is not a palpable reality. It is a conceptual space, a space constructed in the mind rather than anywhere else in our lives, although it may lead to real live events. It is compulsive. On a radio programme recently young people were asked how many hours per day they spent online. Their answer was that it would be easier to work out how many hours they were not online. I spend too much time online. You probably do. There a gamers who play for up to sixty hours non stop and wear diapers so they won’t have to get up. The online world has an addictive quality, and like all addictions it masks a spiritual desire for completion that too often ends in emptiness.

The new world, the postcapitalist world without work argued for by Srnicek and Williams, let us recall is a world in which drudgery is taken over by technology. The idea of getting rid of boring, mind-numbing work is appealing and takes good aim against the work ethic promoted by capitalism under the guise of being good for us. It raises a problem familiar to readers of science fiction: what happens when the technology goes down? I mean all of it, not just the bit that accomplishes a particular task that we’ve been happy to scrap. An increasing or total dependence on technology and machinery, digital or otherwise (but mostly digital) must have the human being as its failsafe device. In other words, we would be ill-advised to forget the “old way”. In editing music or speech it can be the case that old school studio engineers who were brought up editing magnetic tape with a razor blade and splicing tape have a particular sensitivity which bleeds through into their work with computer programmes. So the first thing is not to lose the basic skill. Reliance on the machine is a form of personal irresponsibility.

But further. The real dilemma is between the human spirit and technocracy. Those who stake much on the cyber world, on new technologies, on their amazing abilities and potentials might see this as a false, or old fashioned, dichotomy. Surely the human spirit can now develop in hitherto unimagined ways, they might say, by embracing the extraordinary new world that the new technologies are now beckoning us towards. This may be so, but note that the word I used to counterpose with the human spirit is “technocracy” not “technology” – to which I shall return in a moment. If the first step towards dealing with a problem is to develop an awareness of it then there needs to be a developing discourse of critique of the digimediatized world. Those (like me) who have critical perspectives need to find forums, and be offered platforms, in which to express such critiques. Pandora’s box is, self evidently, opened and its contents unleashed. This not only refers to technology and what it can do but also to what we ourselves become in the digimediatized world we now live in. What happens to our humanness; what happens to this labouring, myth-making animal that we are? And this also refers to politics, social formations, attitudes to knowledge, experience, relationships of all kinds and our general sense of location in life. It also takes in the enormous area of debate and exchange on the subject of democracide mentioned earlier. The most sacred of sacred cows, democracy itself, surely needs to be put in the alchemical vessel of these debates.

Alongside an awareness and ongoing discussion of the problematics, there are other paths to be explored. The digimediatized world, precisely because it is so pervasive, needs a counterculture that is a real counterculture which genuinely runs counter to the precepts and values of the new scenario. There are two ways of doing this. One is to accept and embrace digitechnologies and use them for countercultural purposes. There are, for example, music clubs up and down the country (Plymouth’s Cafe Concrete for example), record labels, and genuinely experimental approaches to music that subvert or oppose mainstream and majority music. Music is the example I know best but this happens in all other spheres. To have any genuinely countercultural impact it needs to keep itself as clear of academia, commerce and prescriptive funding schemes as possible. The other countercultural path is that of lo or no tech. Liveness, non-mediatized events are a crucial element in a current counterculture.

The rationale for these general strategies echoes that proposed by Theodore Rozak in 1970 in The Making of a Counterculture (Anchor/Doubleday 1969). His description of the technocratic society was of one that justifies itself by appeal to technical experts whose appeal is based on scientific forms of knowledge “and beyond the authority of science there is no appeal”. This led him to make three key observations relating to the notion that our human needs are purely technical in character – first, they can be analysed formally by specialists and translated into “social and economic programmes, personnel management procedures, merchandise. and mechanical gadgetry” (my italics). Second, this formal analysis of our feds is now pretty complete – so no improvement needed there. Third, all the necessary experts happen to be those currently in charge or “on the official payroll of the corporate structure”. In these days where the rhetoric of cultural democracy can be pervasive it is salutary to note that Rozak’s ideas are even more valid than they were in 1969, and this is why a supporting and developing a genuine counterculture – or countercultures plural (as opposed to one that has the system’s ways at heart but finds opposition fashionable or image-worthy) is urgent.

Rozak understood the 1960s counterculture as a response to technocracy. When the era is placed under the microscope this view can hardly be disputed. The 1960s saw a revival of fin de siecle ideas involving mysticism, orientalism and the occult as well as a folk revival with a second wind. It harboured some romanticism and an anti-enlightenment rhetoric – Blake rather than Newton. In other words, there was an urgent concern with spiritual values, the making of the individual, what Illich called “tools for conviviality” and a great faith in the arts, especially music, in the non-tangible world of experience, the politics of experience as R.D. Laing called it. Or the Jimi Hendrix Experience…

A development of spirituality is the last, most necessary but complex response I shall list in relation to the digimediatized world and its complex social, political and personal dimensions. I do not advocate an imitation on the 1960s, and most certainly not a revival of that fey, imperialist, self-centred world of New Ageism of the post-’60s. Spirit is niot necessarily mysticism. It simply refers to the unseen, to the un-manifest but demonstrably existential. It does not need to have anything to do with gonzo-Buddhism, new age bodywork practices, runes, the Tarot, the smell of sandalwood or the practice of Tantra or the thoughts of wise old gurus from the Himalayas, although some of these may have something to offer. The main point here is that there can be no such thing as cyber spirituality. Whatever form it takes (music and the arts, meditation, relationships of all kinds, scientific research, teaching and learning…) confrontation with the inner life, the sense of self, purpose and identity necessarily takes place live and alone – despite whatever help might be available from mentors and sympathetic witnesses. And live means away from the computer screen – and leave your phone at home.

A Buddhist speaker I heard as long ago as the 1980s discussed technology. He claimed that technology is the new world. We must embrace technology. We must understand what we can do with it. We must also – he said – practice Buddhism so that we are always in charge of the technology rather than vice versa. We do not, of course, all have to practice Buddhism, but in essence the man was right. The development of new material possibilities must be accompanied by a corresponding development of the inner life. Not long ago I sat in a local pub with four friends all of whom were jabbing text messages onto their phones. I rest my case…

 

 

 

21st Century Fascism and Democracy

I never use the word “fascism” lightly. However, in various powerful countries in the Western world we are now hearing more than a handful of politicians, parading as loose canons, perpetrating ideas which can certainly be described as proto-fascist. This does not, of course, mean that fascism has actually arrived. For that to happen the far right has to have power and a modus operandi of extreme repression and, quite possibly, socio-political violence. So far only Donald Trump has – or may have – that kind of power. It remains to be seen what his period in the political limelight will bring. But the signs, especially in Western Europe are not encouraging. The French electorate is going to have the same kind of Tweedledum or Tweedledee choice that Americans had – a declared Thatcherite or a fascist…

UKIP in the UK is now a serious threat. One would imagine that as it has accomplished its aim – the vote to leave Europe – its work is over.  It might legitimately hang around as a watchdog to make sure that Leave happens in the way they want it. But Paul Nuttall’s declared ambition of replacing the Labour Party is not far fetched and shows that UKIP is not going to shut up once its single issue raison d’être is over. Nuttall has called for the privatisation of the NHS, a referendum on bringing back the death penalty and reversing the hunting ban. A nice, mild enlightened individual, then, and clearly pumped up with ambition.

I have a good friend, a German lady living in England, who told me that although Germany does have a scary far right the mainstream of German outlook is still warned by its past. Ironically, I wonder whether Germany might be an enclave of humanitarianism in an increasingly hard right Europe.

There is one factor that cries out for a serious response, given that if nightmare scenarios were to actually occur it would be the ballot box that got us there. Therefore some critical discussion of democracy itself seems in order. Unless there is some critical thinking about this most sacred or sacred cows I fear we could be doomed to repeat history. Or as a Buddhist might say: the details have changed but not the karma. At the very least it seems relevant to ask a few questions.

If we genuinely value the principles of democracy our faith should be strong enough to investigate or re-investigate it and propose different forms. Is first-past-the-post actually democratic? Does it need to be based on a single personality-leader? Is the party system obsolete? Is it a good system that can lead to fascism, inhumanity, and the law of the jungle propagated by that neoliberal demigod Ayn Rand? What other forms might democracy take? Can we demythologise democracy? Can we have real democracy with a press and media drenched in the hegemony of capitalism? If not, what might we do about it? Can we perhaps drop the stupid concept of the “freedom of the press” – a relevant concept a couple of centuries ago but no longer? Surely at the very least we urgently need to think about these matters.

Trump and Neoliberalism’s End Times

Donald Trump is not an erratic, a loose canon, a ridiculous vainglorious puffed up man of the people who opposes the political mainstream. He is not any of these things. He represents on the one hand the apogee of neoliberalism and on the other its decline and fall. He is not exterior to it. He comes slap bang from its heart and soul. If you want to see what neoliberalism is like at its most threadbare, its most exposed, take a look at Donald Trump.

Neoliberalism was many years in the making. Think tanks and conferences involving its pioneers (Mises, Hayek) went back even to the 1930s and a search for an economic theory and practice other than classic liberalism and socialism. When it eventually achieved political ascendency in the 1980s, proselytised by Milton Friedman and gobbled up by Thatcher, Keith Josephs, Ronald Reagan et al., it had firmed up into a simple pro-capitalist, pro-competition, militantly pro-individualism, anti-public position that conveniently reduced to simple slogans of the kind that Thatcher was particularly good at – “you can’t speed what you can’t afford” and so on. It also made a populist (and popular) appeal to the idea of social, political and (mostly) individual freedom. In theory this pointed to the idea of the minimum state. In practice, however, it usually meant more state and institutional controls, interventions and bureaucracies, more management – not less. Neoliberalism’s fundamental belief that human wellbeing is best served by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms, by individual self-interest and by monetarizing everything in sight was well entrenched in the 1980s and has remained the default position ever since.

There’s always a time-lapse between a new idea’s appearance and its deeper grip, and between its deeper grip and its backwash. The banking crisis of 2008 was a direct descendent of 1980s monetarist policies and deregulated freedoms. Donald Trump, likewise, roughly a quarter of a century on, is a product of neoliberalism and demonstrates its essentially amoral (or maybe unconscious) core.

Its not that Hilary Clinton is NOT neoliberal. Very far from it, of course. But she’s the acceptable face. Trump is the unacceptable face of neoliberalism. That’s what makes him so shocking to his opponents and so appealing to his followers. Trump is an individual, a self-made man, a billionaire. He is a culture hero, a kind of demigod, in the same bracket as Bill Gates, Alan Sugar, Richard Branson or Simon Cowell, such luminaries of contemporary entrepreneurial spirit have actually contributed more of value to society than Trump’s skyscrapers, hotels and casinos. Trump is essentially useless to all but Trump.

Trump may have been on the right and wrong side of the law, may have exploited immigrant workers, may have erected huge monuments to his ego – buildings which bear his name, may have blustered his way to the top, may have had as many business failures as successes – but the point is that he – as a self-motivated, self-directed, self-driven individual – has kept going doing what the system says we all must do: succeeding in material terms and to hell with everything else – ethics, conscience, empathy. Neoliberalism, even more than capitalism itself – of which it is, of course, a derivative -, has a Brechtian moral at its core: as in the fictional city of Mahagonny the greatest crime is to be poor or needy. It is acceptable, and expected, that all will do everything and anything to accumulate wealth in a dog-eat-dog world. There are really no morals – if you make your pile out of the misery and even destruction of others that’s just how it is in the jungle, as also in the world of Ayn Rand. When Trump replied to Clinton’s accusation that he didn’t pay his taxes he said that was because he’s smart. Pure Brecht. And an exposure of the amoral core of neoliberalism.

How could a monster like Trump occur in a civilised country? Part of the answer is that neoliberalism itself is a form of barbarism. But the more interesting question concerns why there haven’t been more Trumps. After all, he stands for everything the system stands for. Even his racism and misogyny are not inconsistent with a divided, unfair and blaming society. Blame is the explanatory tactic that is dragged out when the system fails, when its promise stalls. Blame the migrants, blame the left, blame the Jews or the European Union.

Trump, therefore, represents neoliberalism at its most naked, its most exposed, its least adorned in Theresa May-like piety and right-wing austerity programmes. On the other hand, there has been a lot of talk for a few years now about the failures of neoliberalism, visions for a post-capitalist society. One of the best accounts is Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future” whose first chapter is headed “Neoliberalism is Broken” – which it is, which is proven by the fact that the more it fails to deliver the more it – er – fails to deliver. But there now are many analyses of this deeply flawed system. Furthermore, any vision for the future that doesn’t include enlightened policies on climate change and how to manage rather than rape the planet simply isn’t a vision at all. Such radical-left-green thinking is way beyond the intellect of Trump. But it may be that the neoliberalism’s greatest clown might also be its last one. It probably gets no worse than Trump, and from here on its decline all the way to a better future. That, at least, is the optimistic view. If Trump were to set a working benchmark of unbridled decadence we might all be well advised to get in training for the next rocket to the Moon. Or somewhere.

The Kamikaze Blairites

Is Jeremy Corbyn any more or less electable than Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband were, all of whom were approved by the NEC and the PLP? For that matter, if Tony Blair stood for leader now what would his electability ratings be? Those who pronounce Corbyn unelectable should pause for thought. It is the Labour Party itself that has been proven unelectable, and that is fact, not speculation. If the party is to become electable again it therefore goes without saying that it has to change from being a party of neoliberalism (not all that lite either), spin and utter disconnect with its supporters and potential voters, to being a party with vibrant support and clear analysis of what’s wrong in Britain today. More than this, though, it needs a positive vision for the future, something that Owen Smith is signally lacking. The only future he appears capable of envisaging is deposing Jeremy Corbyn who has actually done nothing wrong.

What has happened since Corbyn was overwhelmingly elected leader has muddied the waters somewhat. First, even before he was elected there were the beginnings of plots against him. From his election onwards there have been constant sneers and smears, hardly making his job of leading the party an easy one. No political leader that I can remember had to battle against such odds – Thatcher, Callaghan, Major, even Blair all had loyal parties.

Then eight months later came the mass resignations designed to make Corbyn’s position untenable. Party unity, the first prerequisite for a good opposition, was totally disregarded in this kamikaze act of self-destruction.

Then there was the clamour for a new leadership contest so that this time those who vote could get the right answer, the previous one obviously being wrong. And when this new leadership contest was set up, which of course it never should have been, there was the attempt to exclude Corbyn from being on the leadership ballot, a clear and cynical attempt to ignore the existing rules. Eventually there was the spectacle of two political nonentities, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, launching embarrassing campaigns that, frankly, didn’t know what they were for, only who they were against.

The EU vote was something of a diversion, although it proved to be grist to the mill of the discredit Corbyn campaign. And so it rolls on, the Blairites and others losing in the high court and looking stupider by the day. Will they squander huge amounts of members’ money in appealing the high court’s decision? I’m betting they might. After all, they’ve proven they’ll do anything to prevent Corbyn’s supporters from voting.

But the muddied waters have now obscured everything. If there were an election soon and Corbyn lost it would be obvious that the electorate as a whole hadn’t fancied a disunited party. Where would the blame lie? With Corbyn or the frankly vicious campaign against him? In all honesty it would be hard to tell. Both sides, no doubt, would blame the other, but it wasn’t Corbyn who started the plots and coups against himself, now was it…

The anti-Corbyn faction is single-handedly responsible for destroying the Labour Party. To use an analogy: if a suitcase were found at an airport would you blow up the entire airport? That, in effect, is what the anti-Corbyn faction is doing, and it seems that their only grounds for over-reacting in such a manner is that they don’t like the look of the suitcase. At least, they show no interest in opening it and finding out what’s inside – which is interesting, to say the least, because it is full of things one might expect to find in a case labelled “Labour”.

Dylan Goes Electric

Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, and the Night that Split the Sixties. Elijah Wald, Dey St., 2015

That night in the summer of 1965 when Bob Dylan did a short electric set at the Newport Folk Festival is the stuff of legend. Accounts differ as to what happened, although the core issue of Bob Dylan’s loud electric presentation is not in contention. He did three songs, Maggie’s Farm, Like a Rolling Stone and It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry with a rock band line-up. It was loud, louder than folk festivals were used to. He returned to do an acoustic encore, but the legend remains: Dylan “went electric” and Pete Seeger went apoplectic threatening to put an axe through the electric wires. From here on Dylan represented liberated youth refusing to be constrained by existing circumstances and fashion (“I ain’t gonna work at Maggie’s Farm no more”); Seeger, from being the rebel who had cocked a snook at McCarthy, became the old garde who didn’t get it (“…something is happening here but you don’t know what it is do you, Mr. Jones?”).

The crowd booed and jeered. How many? Did they all boo? Recollections vary. It was mainly because of the lousy sound system whereby you couldn’t hear the words. Was it? That’s certainly what some say, but not others. Pete Seeger, symbol and key organizer of the Newport Festival and, indeed, the American folk revival as a whole, was outraged but it seems unlikely that he was walking around with an axe – although there was one available. It had been used by singers of worksongs to add some authenticity to their singing. Alan Lomax, America’s most assiduous folk music collector, was disgusted by Dylan’s petulant display.

Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric…is the best read you’ll ever find on the subject. His detailed research enables him to give full accounts of every aspect not just of this one incident, but of all the circumstances leading up to it, the dynamics and contradictions of the folk revival, as well as the wider significance of the event itself. Furthermore, as we have come to expect from Wald, his writing is easy to read, fluent, and as compelling as a who-dunnit. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. (I said that about his Escaping the Delta a few years ago, one of the best books about the blues I’ve ever read.)

The folk revival, not only in America, was very much a case of authenticity versus manufacture, those old and problematic polar opposites which dissolve the closer you get to them. Popular music was an industry, it was concerned with image, marketing, made its appeal by means of simple – if not simplistic – statements, and at its worst was the soundtrack of a snide capitalism whose only motivation was to make money. Folk music, on the other hand, was felt to be unspun, real, certainly not capitalist, not an industry, and made an appeal to love and peace among “my brothers and sisters all over this land”. Of course, the careers of the best known folksingers such as Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, early Bob Dylan and, indeed, Pete Seeger himself were supported, at least in part, by aspects of the music industry – agents like Albert Grossman, record companies, and even hit records. The authenticity-versus-manufacture dualism is a nonsense really. It’s all about presentation, image and assumed ideologies. Wald’s account presents this entire dynamic in historical detail, sympathetically, in a non-partisan manner giving credit where its due and critique where its necessary.

What’s clear, and what I’ve been teaching university students for some years now, is that for all that it has become a mythic narrative the night Dylan went electric is the single key symbolic moment when rock took over from folk as the music of 1960s youth, and it has continued ever since. There are many roots (and routes) to rock: black rhythm and blues, which Elvis always acknowledged, aspects of country music, urban blues, beat poetry, the folk revival. And there were many instances of electric instruments in folk before that night at Newport. But because of the stir Dylan caused, because of the music and words of the actual songs he sang, and because of the fact that it was Bob Dylan, it is not too journalistic and not too hyperbolic to claim it as the birth of rock. Certainly the tale can be validly told thus. Elijah Wald’s brilliant book will give you all the evidence you need.