Archive | February, 2017

26 Hours 9 Minutes and 22 seconds with the Kenneth Clark(e) s *

27 Feb

I blame the Los Angeles Review of Books. Earlier this year I noticed a link to a review of a biography on Kenneth Clark. Lord Clark of Civilisation as he was hilariously known. Alan Clarks dad as he was also hilariously known, though mainly posthumously. Clark, was an interesting character and the review was good.It reminded me I had volume 2 of Clark’s Autobiography in a box somewhere. I located it and read it firly rapidly. Published in 1977 and dedicated “ To Alan “ it covered the years from before the second world war to publication.

Clark is a lucid writer and you enter a world as bizarre and out of touch as anything his son ( The racist Mr Toad ) conjures up in his diaries. He bought a castle for gawds sake ! How many of us will be able to put that in our autobiographies ?

Clark takes us through his time as a wartime Civil Servant. He doesn’t seem to have enjoyed it or been very attentive at it. He wrote If the Invader Comes  a pamphlet sent to every household. Its a document worth further exploration, but he dismisses it as useless. He put on films and Concerts during the war to keep up morale. It seems he had little problem with his own morale.Away from his wife he claims to have been “ the least Strindbergian of men”….and he got into a trouble away from his wife that he “need not specify nor describe”. Im sure this is his way of saying he met nice ladies and they were nice back to him. Its not quite in the Princess Diana/ Prince Charles league of admitting adultery by semaphore …its more like by cryptic crossword.

Anecdotes abound, normally about the great and the good. He hears that the war has ended after lunching with Ernest Bevin and then taking his wife Jane to a German Surgeon to remove a broken needle left in her backside. He continues post war in a variety of public service roles and each of these brings fascinating tales.

Clark though doesn’t see himself as a powerful person. He tells of his mission to ask De Valera ( Irelands Premier ) to change his mind over the issue of port access not to reveal power but to reveal the lack of power. Indeed as Chair of the Arts Council he says he had less power than a lollipop lady ( who oddly he says enjoy using it ?).

Like his son, Clark sees the world darkly. He claims to have seen “Death” enter Maynard Keynes opera box the night before he died. A natural optimist he is not. I must confess to never having watched Civilisation, but I did allow myself one clip after reading this book. Clark gives a rather gloomy view of the world today. He is a stick in the mud and quotes Yates second coming, before looking reflectively around his Castle. He owned a Castle !

At the same time as reading this I also received a free trial download of an audiobook. I currently don’t have much cash to buy new books so decided to try this out. I am not a fan of audiobooks in general but decided to spend my daily commute with that other Kenneth Clarke. Partly because I seem to recall a story that he sued Trivial Pursuit for claiming he was Kenneth Clarks son, or perhaps Alan did or some such combination. A rubbish anecdote I digress but a perfect connection for the Clark/s.

Clarke was a “big beast” political figure. His autobiography read in a rather sing song and friendly tone provides an entertaining if not revelatory account of life in British Politics since the late 1960’s.His early life was content and happy he enjoyed everything it seemed from trainspotting (not the film) to sport and joined the elite very easily. He ran up an enormous overdraft as a student that he didn’t pay off until he was in his 40’s ( a sentiment I can concur with ) and then had a bizarre life as a QC in Birmingham by day, MP for Nottingham at the weekend and on a train to westminster for the evening session each day and back to Birmingham for bed. Oddly he thinks this was good for democracy.

His reminisces about the 70s political scene are rather stereotypical, but then maybe they were compared to the current times.

Audiobooks create an odd relationship, at times I miss large chunks of what is being said either through concentrating on the road or over concentrating on what had been said. I almost career into a ditch when Clarke recalls standing dripping wet with no clothes on arguing with Mrs Thatcher. He was on the phone I think and not in the same house but it was mental torture and not easy to just skip back. Clarke enjoyed the Thatcher years and rose to prominence, he then became chief smartarse during the Major years. Im not sure he really respected Major and always seems to be the smartest guy in the room whether its at Euro meetings or on Black Wednesday. As Chancellor he enjoyed tinkering and claims that all students during his Chancellorship smoked Drum roll ups. I know this to be a lie. I was a student during his Chancellorship and my tobacco of choice wasn’t Drum, however I can’t recall its name it was in a more yellowy packet. Drum of course was not available in the UK and was all bootleg. Clarke wanted his duty.

Later Clarke stood for leadership of the party 3 times and lost in rather different circumstances each time. When rejected he nursed his directorships, most controversially at British American Tobacco, though its hard to see why a man who loved smoking so much wouldn’t have done this job.

Each chapter is named after a Jazz classic and Clarke introduces them like a poor mans Alan Partridge.  If only he had slipped a few John Zorn titles in. Fuck the Facts about his time as Chancellor or bonehead . Maybe he did and I had drifted off mentally on the commute home.

Throughout the book the real star is his now deceased wife Gillian. Gillian sacrificed an academic career because Ken wanted a political one. She travelled second class while Ken flew business and she put up with his working hours, overdraft and raised the children.

Clarks return to Government under David Cameron paints him as a crazy uncle tolerating the noisy kids. He likes Osborne, seems contemptible of Cameron and eventually moves on. Clarke is now the hero of Bremainers, I personally will miss his midlands sing song voice on the commute tomorrow, though I still have to remember the name of my 1990s Tobacco taste.

***comprises

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/when-people-wanted-civilisation-reassessing-kenneth-clark/ …5 minutes

 

this at 5 minutes 22 seconds

 

Ken Clarks “Audiobiography” is an eyewatering 23 hours and 29 minutes

And reading Kenneth Clark The Other Half  took 2 and a half hours.

 

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Notes on Gramsci,Fascism and Trump.

12 Feb

 

Many in the West are now experiencing for the first time what a Fascist Government may look like. There is debate over whether the Trump regime is a proto-fascist or some other classification which seems at times pointless and sterile when the pace and projection of events is clearly giving concern the world over.

We are though living in an era of “Populism”. Populist may be the new fascists ? Certainly the ultra nationalist ones give lots of indications. I have written before on the idea that the likes of Farage and Powell before him, send off the all the smells of fascism, all the signs and signals even if they couldn’t pull all the levers. It makes little difference but these debate go on and on. Normally to agree nothing more than we don’t like it, and how unpleasant and incompatible with liberalism it is. But I don’t look to Liberals and Liberalism to resolve it. I have no real desire to make sure potential Fascists are, or are not, filling in all the boxes on a matrix.

I am reminded at the present time of the debate a few years ago around the work of Michael Mann. Mann had written a second significant book on Fascism and “ the dark side of Democracy “ (Mann 2005). The idea that a failing in Democracy may sustain the conditions for Genocide. Democracy was no longer a bulwark against the rise of violent tyranny. Was it ever one might ask ? Indeed the failings are in our narrow concept of Liberal Democracy, of which the USA is seen as the mothership. The pushing of the neoliberal boundaries within a democratic context has led to the conditions of collapse. When politicians and the public feel the local supermarket owner understand them better than the political class then we are going somewhere else. The events in Greece in 2015 were a stark reminder of how financial markets and the associated administrators react to the will of the electorate.

America as we all know has a constitution that starts “ We the People”. Now we are letting politicians decide who “We” are and who the “People” are. These are never expanded nomenclature, always retracted ones ! They just ripen the conditions for discontent. Global organisations and international groups are easily badged as “them” and the WTO has failed us all. In other directions “we” are born here, or sometimes something even more complicated ( as in the current referendum in Switzerland giving third generation immigrants voting rights). But these are the empty politicians. Not only those selling us the “populism” with its neat, to them, models of the Demos and who is harming who. It’s also those holding the supposed mainstream and the middle-ground. They have been complicit in the suicide of liberal Democracy.

Trump has played this tune all the way to the White House. Now he’s there he’s not stopping. Those , and lets call them idiots for argument’s sake, who said that Trump was merely sending a signal that his voters knew wouldn’t be acted on,how are they feeling now. Like idiots I hope. But were all complicit in the idiocy to some extent.

And what idiocy it is. Not content with building a wall across the Mexican border,or of accusing the media of being liars, indeed even having a senior adviser who sees himself as Darth Vader doesn’t seem to be the ends of the lunacy. We are left with random immigration bans, state agencies working a gale force 11 and a world of alternative facts.

It’s at times like this then that I turn to Gramsci. His legacy as a writer who understood the nature and challenge of Fascism and how it poses problems that Liberal Democracy cannot easily answer is often unduly neglected. Attempts have been made to re-stake this claim but they still fall short.(Adamson,1990) I am not skilled enough to finish the job, but maybe leave a few signposts on the way.
Gramsci lived through the rise and implementation of Fascism in Italy and Western Europe. Something we hoped had been an event consigned to history. With each step in the development of first the party then the state, lines were drawn which survived only until the next move. From an Industrial lobby to totalitarianism in a series of remarkable unchallenged moves. Italy represented a microcosm of world capitalism. It was urban and rural, developed and backward, it hosted fragmented national elements, was fast dealing with industrialisation and a declining agricultural sector. Its relationship with the power of the catholic church also illustrated the wider political cultural dominance that can come into play. Gramsci saw this through the lens of hegemony. I have borrowed heavily from Hobsbawm here and will note his comment that Italy was a “laboratory of political experiences” (Hobsbawm ,2011)

Gramsci also understood in a remarkably prescient analysis the role of “subversive”. This was a negative class position, the “people” define themselves by empirical enemies. In the Italian context this was a dislike of country over town, of appearance standards and of officials and officialdom. Peasants and small farmers hating the civil servant.Not the state for they don’t understand that but they do understand its functionaries. (Gramsci,1971)

Gramsci saw the rise of Fascism as something more than Mussolini and something more alarming than the next phase in capitalism’s destruction. Writing in 1921 his analysis was brutally honest. The Fascists were involved in criminal activity, had moral and material accomplices in the state functionaries and a military hierarchy and command structure. In the face of this great threatening development, Gramsci was horrified at the lack of response from the Socialist party. Well that’s not wholly true, he called it a low moan. ( Gramsci,1921).

Like Trumps proto-fascism, Italian Fascism had a flaw. Unlike the death star it was not one so easy to explode. Though it carries the potential for its own destruction. The middle class disgruntled white-collar workers and small business owners on one side and the disposed rural class on the other. Both had come together under Mussolini’s umbrella but both had fundamentally different resolutions to their grievances. The parliamentary element will make political allegiances, the working class element will be left floundering. This coming split is, for Gramsci, an opportunity. We will no doubt see this with Trump. The quick wins for deregulated bankers wont help the New Hampshire underclass. They need something to turn up to take advantage of real class struggle ( Gramsci,1921 b) This is more than the broad alliances that any political movement or party makes and needs to be numerically successful. The two demands are contradictory. The current debates about the disconnected or “leftbehinds”, the white social conservatives of the Brexit vote, angry at not having a voice amongst a more educated elite provides another view of the people. They are the outcasts of the modern capitalist world, without a role or either perceived political or economic power. In a sudden moment they seem to have an outlet and a change to exercise some political power if not some economic power. Do they consider that the exercise of one may further hinder the other ? Perhaps not.To get their needs met requires entrenchment on “liberal” values. The commercial service elements to this support group need to continue exploiting them to make a profit. Otherwise they wont trade out of the situation. The two groups can’t be winners without the rules and social structure fundamentally changing. A trade war with China is not likely to benefit unemployed Americans to any great extent.

In 1926 Gramsci widened this debate again. The two elements were a set of tensions but actually Fascism had another split. Another group with even darker motives. This group wanted to merge the party with the state and create a bourgeois position of strength against all other political parties. Fascist action then becomes a totalitarian regime. Gramsci is still convinced that the other faction is represented by two contradictions. The first between landowners and capitalists in particular over the issue of tariffs. The second between the petite bourgeoisie and capitalism. (Gramsci 1926) Keep this in mind as we see movements towards a Trumpian judiciary, a battle between those who will be stymied by the raft of tariff and trade deals that are, or are not, entered into. When the media are taunted for being in opposition to the President were moving into Gramsci’s dark space.Creating industrial jobs, something Trump has promised his dispossessed, left behind supporters, is going to be done in an environment of pro-america trade deals. Quite who and how these new jobs will trade their output with remains to be seen, unless America will manufacture and trade only within its one borders, then everything else falls at the feet of capital(ism).

This of course leads to Gramsci’s much wider political point. In dealing with the “crisis” that has arisen, the traditional ruling interests will still be at an advantage. The Fascist challenge, however badged, still leaves a swamp with many of the same inhabitants before the proposed draining. We may be experiencing what Gramsci observed as the masses moving from political passivity to certain activity.The demands they present may seem revolutionary ( banning immigrants, tearing up trade deals, full employment) . However watch carefully how the traditional ruling class will solidify around this new position. Will big business and the corporate banking sector lose influence over trade deals ? Will the insurance companies be impacted if Obama care vanishes? Of course not, they have numerous “trained cadres “ ready to reabsorb control. (Gramsci,1971)

The debate moves then to what is to be done ?

Once the airport protestors go home ( or get arrested ) do we carry on a low moan and turn to TED talks and Facebook comments. Indeed a website designed to help people complain about Trump policy has been created. All you do is click the issue you don’t like. It has 100,000 visits in Trumps first 10 days (Vara,2017). Is it likely to do anything other than make people feel better ? Gramsci would wonder if registering your unhappiness online will really undermine the power structure. It might make a minor addition to the war of position, the tactical civil society focus needed to bring about change. However its going to need more than this. Ultimately if Trumps Presidency isn’t to take the world into either an American Fascist state superpower or a disjointed return to the corporate elite, it will require a vanguard leadership to bring together the war of position and deliver the war of manoeuvre. If these forces come together then Trump will have to resort to force. Gramsci saw the revolution taking place against a backdrop of economic catastrophe only when the counter-hegemonic revolution had been undertaken. (Mahoney,1995) What remains to be seen is if a couple of websites, John Oliver and a raft of Academy award speeches will be enough.

Bibliography
Adamson,WL (1990) Gramsci’s Interpretation of Fascism, Journal of the History of Ideas,41:4
Conversi,D (2006) Demo-Skepticism and Genocide. Political Studies Review 4:3
Gramsci,A (1921) Socialists and Fascists 11 June 1921
Gramsci,A (1921 b) The Two Fascism 25 Aug 1921
Gramsci,A (1926 )A study of the Italian situation
Gramsci,A (1971) Selections from Prison Notebooks ,Lawrence & Wishart
Hobsbawm, E (2011) How to Change The World, Abacus
Mahoney,S (1995) Gramsci’s Theory of Revolution, .
Mann,M (2005) The Dark Side of Democracy, Cambridge University Press
Vara,V (2017) To Complain about Trump,just click, Bloomberg, 11 February, 2017

Against The Double Blackmail

7 Feb

Against The Double Blackmail, Slavoj Zizek, Allen Lane 2016

In the first days of his Presidency, Donald Trump put Immigration and Migrants high on the agenda. Refugees from certain countries deemed risky were barred for a set period of time. Travellers from people on a list of countries were no longer able to travel to the US. Muslims were going to have to pass a religious test, well that nationals with other religions would be given favourable treatment. Executive Order 13769 caused chaos and widespread condemnation. Suddenly the rest of the world was looking to be more liberal on refugees. Of course it doesn’t matter to the refugees, they want to enter America in spite of Trump. It remains to be seen where this will end, but it highlight once again that the issue of migration and refugees ( or rather issues they are seperate ) is still around.

At almost the same time the Prime Minister of the UK, Teresa May has announced a scheme to help poor countries settle refugees at the expense of rich ones. Rather than attempt to reach Europe with its rich culture of assimilating and supporting migrants and refugees, Syrians will now be “helped” to face in the other direction. With little insight that the heaviest refugee burden already falls on the poor and developing countries anyway May looks to be buying off her own Trumpian crisis.

None of this would surprise Zizek. His short but excellent book was written in 2015 when the Mediterranean refugee crisis was becoming reactionary. Zizek provides us with two distinct thought maths. Firstly Islam is not a problem, or rather it is not the problem we think it is. Islamic Fascists are. This syncretic religion is a terror organisation pure and simple. It aims are political not religious. You fight the ideology of the armed fascist not the cleric.

Secondly and more importantly the issues of refugees, assimilation, looking different, border, how many settlers a country can take, why are refugees bad and and (some) migrants good all boil down to a misguided notion of us and them. We enjoy our western lifestyles, we fear they will change if too many of them come her so we put up rules around it. Those that can’t make it either recreate a bargain basement version of the west or fight the infidels. This is the wrong question for Zizek. We are all oppressors of the capitalist system. Our struggle isn’t west vs east its global capitalism. We all want a better life, maybe we can have it together after all ?