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Using Gramsci

5 May

HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

Sean Mahoney on how the revolutionary Marxism of Antinio Gramsci can provide solutions to some of the predicaments of Europe and the US today.

Michele Filippini, Using Gramsci: A New Approach (Pluto Press, 2017)

In late 1926 Antonio Gramsci wrote an unfinished manuscript with the working title ‘Some aspects on the Southern Question.’ As with other essays by Gramsci it takes a local, narrow and perhaps niche issue and transforms it into an argument that is expansive and of universal interest, not only for the world of 1926 but for the world today.

The ‘Southern Question’ as considered by Gramsci focused on the unification of Northern industrial workers and Southern peasants, a unification that would be required in order to overcome the bourgeoisie. ‘For the proletariat to become the ruling, the dominant class, it must succeed in creating a system of class alliances which allow it to mobilise the majority of the…

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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.

 

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 ?

Modi 2.014

15 Jan

The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign To Transform India , Lance Price, Hodder & Stroughton, 2015 

The Indian election of 2014 will long be remembered as a turning point in Indian politics and society. I have written about a previous book on the election The Indian Election of 2014 so was wondering whether Lance Price’s book would make me think any differently. Price a journalist and ex Number 10 communications manager is given access to Modi but provides at times a critical assessment of the man. More critical than the 45 page comic Bal Narendra which painted the childhood of Modi as a heroic saint saving drowning boys, wrestling crocodiles and folding his clothes neatly. It comes across as an Indian Enid Blyton.

Modi is a populist and a fairly odd one at that. He kept his wedding a secret for 40 odd years, though is still ambiguous about the status of it and his wife. His Government it seems is intent on replacing Mahatma Gandhi with Narendra Modi and the election campaign illustrated some of that thinking. Modi is marketed as being the outsider, or rather one of you not one of them. So long as you are okay with militant Hindu nationalism, and they are Congress,muslims and catholics. The cloud hovering over Modi and his role in the Gujurati riots never seems to be removed. He seems to have re-invented himself though and risen above the disaster of the 2004 national election.

The election took the BJP into Government on its own, a remarkable achievement in Inidan politics. The BJP though is its own coalition, made up of various sized cell groups. The cow protection cell, the naturopathy cell and the weavers cell being just 3 of them. Price looks at the rather more sinister support role of the Rashhtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which is like a 1970s TUC to the Labour Government of the day. A massive interest/lobby/control group behind the BJP. It operated a ground campaign for Modi that was unlikely to have been disinterested.

Modis cult of the strongman was perhaps the major theme of the election. (56 inch chest ) His leadership vs Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi the non-existant captain. Modi the man. Modi the t-shirt image, the plastic doll, the alarm spray superman. Modi the crocodile whisperer and chai wallah. Gandhi the disapointment to his mother. Modi used disparaging Muslim terms against Gandhi at some points. You dont need to be an expert in Indian politics to see the negative attack stance of this. Modi rides off criticism and scandal like, well like Donald Trump. The ” snoopgate” affair being just one example. The Gujurati police were undertaking surveillance on a young student in great detail at his behest. Her father was worried about her ? Oh ok. But then criminal activity is no bar to success in Indian politics. 13 of Modi’s 45 ministers were facing pre-existing criminal charges including rape,attempted murder and intimidation. If only Super Modi could sort it out.

img_5239Theres a great story of one of his Ministers Smriti Irani, she was something of a media personality and had in 2004 decided to fast to death in protest at Modi. Now he describes her as his younger sister and that the whole fasting to death thing was a faux pas. As faux pas go, thats not insignificant. I presume she has stopped the fast ? In her new role she has added six new yoga departments to Indian universities. Long live Irani.

Much has been made of Modi in 3D. Price details many of the technical problems that this raised and also the juxtaposition that at the same time as his virtual appearances he was also big box office in the flesh. Crowds of people came to see him in the flesh, often at risk to life. And while the election was at times run on a social media agenda, perhaps unlike any other in the world before it, this aspect was more self-fulfilling than transformative. A great example being the selfie with Modi, it was more Pokemon go than a new way of doing political narrative. The selfie is the selfie, rather than the embarrassing off the cuff snap it is a processed often formal event. Though Price tells us it isn’t really in the use of technology that Modi connects to the youth, it is in his ability to express optimism and hope. Indeed his campaign slogan was “ Good Days are Coming “ ( though he seems to have stolen this off his predecessor.

Never forget that the Modi who electrified his province stood to end open defecation. India may have gone hi-tech but its as consistent as any other political future we are offered!

Corporal Jones guide to the Euro

13 Dec

Disclaimer : I won this book earlier this year in a rather surprising caption competition from the wonderful Lion and Unicorn peeps.

Not another Brexit book but one on the policy,history and issues that have arisen for Countries engaged in the single currency. At times this book is like the Corporal Jones guide to the Euro, the authors ” Do not like it, they do not like it.” over and over. Not the cold steel but the Hard Euro. At times this gets in the way of some insightful and important analysis. The Euro has been a flop, it could never have worked on the terms it was created on, and the participants seem to have few if any options. The negative impact of the Euro on countries like Ireland and Greece are covered in a readable way. The authors have concluded that divorce is the only option left and despite the pain and the mess this might cause, it should be worked through.

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They are contemptuous of those who have tried to make the Euro more palatable, withering put downs of Yanis Varoufakis abound, the most quotable being ” No amount of swooning over Varoufakis can disguise the fact he’s a politics lecturer in a leather jacket” Ouch. I know its a quote in the book but clearly a position shared by the authors. The left it seems, much like the right is split on this issue ( The Euro not Varoufakis !).

The Euro looks to be in deep trouble at the moment, if it bounces back it will be a whole new Europe that emerges with it. If it dies then so too does the current version of Europe. In light of Brexit, the Italian Referendum and as we near the French Presidential elections, Corporal Jones of the Euro is returning.Only this time its “ Don’t Panic”

Government without Politics

11 Nov

Local Government in New Zealand challenges and choices, edited by Drage and Cheyne, Dunmore Press,2016

New Zealand it often seems has an overly centralised political system. A Government elected every three years, with no second chamber can it seems pretty much do what it wants. Indeed even the move to proportional representation has left a virtual majority Government from one party and none of the complex european style coalitions we were all promised.

The study of Local Government in New Zealand then is something of a challenge and choice like the book title. This wide ranging book re-inforces the role Local Government plays on peoples lives in New Zealand. Whilst local government has increased the amount it takes from local residents through rates there has been less and less direct involvement. Turnout at elections continues to plummet, and the 2016 triennial elections , which are not covered in this book have not turned this around.

Some of the writers attempt to consider this ? Why is turnout so low ? Is turnout a meaningful way of measuring political engagement ? How can democracy be kept going in between elections ?

There have been some other attempts to capture the role of Local Government in recent years but this book, as many of the authors acknowledge is an attempt to replace the last standard text on Local Government from Graham Bush in 1995. It should be noted that book was called Local Government and Politics in New Zealand. Somehow it seems we now have local government with NO politics. Whilst many of the writers grapple with the desire to see democracy and engagement through a wider sense there is also a sense that for the wider population local government doesn’t matter. its a faceless “thing” that is a regulator and a governor rather than a political body that has vision.

The challenges are clearly identified. The role of white middle aged men is one of the dominant factor, how do we get beyond this ? Maybe its electoral reform ? Maybe its finding a way to get beyond the shocking resistance to Maori representation? Maybe its recognising that politics in a non political era may refresh our views of local government?There are challenges in making the biggest transformation of local government since Graham Bush’s textbook – The super city- work. Auckland with its both physically large and structurally complex superstructure still seems afloat on an island of rates demands from its seemingly drowning resident base.

Its the choices I couldn’t really fathom. Auckland has put much of its service delivery and asset management out to Council Controlled Organisations (CCO) , they have a real executive mayor and a Maori representation model that differs from the rest of the country. CCOs get some mention but rarely do we get to feel that as CCOs become more distant from Council ( And Mayor Goff is distancing them even further ) then why would people care too much about Council ? Whose running the service ? And for what benefit ? Does the executive Mayor model need enhancing and given the public lack of appetite for Maori wards what does New Plymouth have to learn from the Independent Maori Statutory Board ? And theres more….could we uncouple local elections from the DHB, what about the process? Could local political slates make campaigns more dynamic ? My initial look at the 2016 elections shows that those incumbents standing again had nearly a 90% chance of re-election, and some Councils had 100% re-election. Are they doing that good or job or have we just given up the idea that they can ? Theres a debate to be had over electronic voting, but it will exist in a vacuum if we don’t address the point of having these elected members.

This book provides a lot to think about, but what are we going to do to make local government relevant again ?

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The Time of His Life , Dennis Healey, Silly Billies and Molly Sugden

30 Oct

I am an avid consumer of British politics in the seventies, and so can’t believe I have only just read Dennis healey’s autobiography. Healey goes by the title of the best Prime Minister we never had, which is of course a meaningless phrase. How do you test such a thing. How do we know that he or Rab Butler or Roy Jenkins or any of the others who share his title would have been any good. Its a best losers prize really. I incidentally think I am the best Prime Minister we never had, and also the best opening batsmen that never was.

Healey is rather contemptuous of his rivals. Jenkins, Foot,Callaghan and Wilson were all busted flushes. Tony Benn though gets most of his disdain, and the little bit left over gets doled out, rather unceremoniously to Stafford Cripps.

Healey is famous for being a bit of a bruser. He was a plain talking chancellor in the 70s , tabling a budget every couple of months, dealing with the IMF, shouting at Trade Unions. So much of this fails to come across in his book. He seemed more interested in being Defence Secretary than Chancellor. Doing it because no one else could. He had the same approach to breeding his goldfish !

Of course he isn’t really famous , and isn’t famous at all for being a bruser. Its sort of made up. Like Silly Billy. He never said it, Mike Yarwood did. Then he stole it. Imagine stealing Mike Yarwoods material. Silly billy was a parliamentary joke well before Healey though. There was a bit of a scrap about in in 1887. In 1976 the Prime Minister was asked if Healey was a silly-billy . He didn’t answer. Edward Garner called himself one in 1998. Healey also never wanted to make peoples pips squeak. Again I think I would have preferred it if he did.

He decided to drop the Punk Monetarism insult because his kids told him it was insulting to Punks.

He was a light entertainment politician, despite his real interest being in the classical sphere. I remember him turning up on any old guff in the 80s, some memorable, most not.

Oh and he went to the same school as Molly Sugden.

Seldon on Cameron

6 Sep

Cameron at 10, the new paperback edition has a brief update to remind you that having done his best to cling on to power through the coalition, the Scottish and STV referenda and beyond Cameron shot two great big holes in his no doubt expensively shoed feet and has left the building.

Seldon has become the instant go to man for insight and narrative on the inner workings of the Prime Ministership. His work on John Major was almost a lengthy diary comprised on numbers newspaper cuttings and “private information”, his works on Blair more thematic. Seldon comes to like the latter Blair, where as he seems as though he can hardly tolerate Brown and finds Ed Balls ” the puppet master ” Ed Balls the dancer younger readers may not be aware was a politician and friend of Gordon Brown in a former life.

So his approach to Cameron seems , well headmasterly. Seldon seems to have a soft spot for Tories and   posh ones at that. Cameron is seen as failing the big tests, he is a tactician not a strategist. He keeps all the plates spinning when many would like them to crash, until of course they do spectacularly. For Seldon Osborne seems to be the real hero of the book, political,ruthless and yet ever so subservient. One for the price of two seems a constant theme around Cameron / Osborne (Camborne perhaps ?). Seldon doesn’t really make much comment on the levels of fear or poor campaign run by Cameron in both Scotland and Brexit, as with his books on Blair he drops relationship in in a thematic way – read a chapter on Lynton Crosby or Michael Gove rather than interweaving them. At times its disjointing, at others its helpful ( you can skip Gove if you wish – Gove skipping would be a sight and perhaps a tourist attraction).

Im not sure what value Seldons books really bring. Its a combination of Journalism and at times infuriating private information. One imagines for example that conversations between Cameron and John Oliver are attributable to one or the other of them, maybe even both of them! One wonders if the Seldon machine is gearing up to befriend Teresa May, and if they are, for all its faults I will probably read it.

Ministers at War

18 Jul

You may recall when Obama was standing for US President. It became very chic amongst the pop political classes to talk of the ” Team of Rivals”. It was going to be the guidebook for his Presidency. Look the book is around 900 pages so in summary ( as it’s quite hard to read in bed ) it’s about Lincoln trying to keep his rivals in the tent. Now it became something of a buzz phrase. I was slightly worried then that ” Ministers at War” was billed as being a UK version.

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Scanner’s book however doesn’t pretend to be quad-guide book, though in some ways it is. Churchill was dealt a fairly tricky hand, Prime Minister without the full consent of his party, taking over from a disastrous Prime Minister and policy that he was partly implicated in, faced with numerous rivals for the post( or at least people who thought they could do it better than he could ).Add to this the ongoing total war and you have a fairly challenging in-tray. It’s never clear that any of his rivals really could have rolled him, Stafford Cripps for all his self-belief would have struggled to contain a Tory parliament, Beaverbrook was a Lord,and Atlee,Beverage and Morrison all had agendas but were unlikely to have challenged him, let alone succeed.

It isn’t then that Churchill was trying to manage his rivals, rather he was trying to placate the rather swollen egos within his Cabinet, and beyond. He did this with varied success. Some were dispatched, others given enough rope and some left to gain momentum. By 1945 many of his rivals found themselves on the winning side.

What is remarkable is that Churchill had to energize the internal politics of the Cabinet at a time of total war. Allegiance was not straight-forward. In politics it never is.

This book does provide something of a guide to the ego massaging successful leaders need to do, and that at times they also need to wield the axe..even if it may be a little blunted. It was a coalition united by a common purpose that he just about managed to keep on the road until 1945. Schneer notes that Churchill’s path to No 10 was not straightforward and could easily have gone against him. I don’t though agree that in falling away in 1945 we ended up with a unified,progressive government ….the 1945 Labour Government was Atlees own team of rivals with even bigger egos and jockeying for position, though that s a minor criticism of this wonderfully readable book.

 

Do you know Hanif Kureshi ?

31 May

“he asked me if I knew the novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureshi. I was slightly surprised but replied that I knew who he was but did not think I had ever met him. Neil seemed to accept this and then explained that it had been reported that a Shadow Cabinet member had been heard to opine that Neil was ‘no good on television”.Inquiries had been made,the report had been traced to Hanif Kureshi, and he had in turn apparently said that he heard the comment from me. This was a ridiculous assertion,…”

So does Bryan Gould sum up a conversation between himself and Neil Kinnock which probably summarises everything that was wrong with Labour in the 80s/90s. Kureshi a playwright and author of some distinction becomes the symbol of Labour Lovies , whether he was or not, Pinnock constantly sniping,constantly paranoid and constantly moaning and Gould constantly believing himself to be right.

In some ways that Gould even wrote an autobiography is vainglorious, he was the defeated leadership candidate for the Labour Party. Although his comments on the Labour party campaign machine in the 87 and 92 election are interesting he was clearly getting his retaliation in first. And to some extent his bubble is pricked by Mandelson being very complementary about him in his own book.

Gould it appeared was always right, and always alone in thinking so. He’s not alone in that, but self reflection doesn’t come across at all.

You might wonder why I am noting a book written 20 years ago, well I bought it recently for a $1, a fair exchange I reckon and just read it. Well worth a dollar.