Featuring Laurie Penny, China Mieville & Chris Nineham.
I’m glad Sandra isn’t here anymore to see how her party, the Socialist Workers Party, deals with accusations of sexual harassement and rape (as reported by Laurie Penney):
This week, it came to light that when allegations of rape and sexual assault were made against a senior party member, the matter was not reported to the police, but dealt with ‘internally’ before being dismissed. According to a transcript from the party’s annual conference earlier this month, not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.
Lenny isn’t impressed either, both by the waqy the central committee handled the original accusations and now has tried to stop criticism of its attempts at covering it up:
This is the thing that all party members need to understand. Even on cynical grounds, the Central Committee has no strategy for how to deal with this. A scandal has been concealed, lied about, then dumped on the members in the most arrogant and stupid manner possible. The leadership is expecting you to cope with this. This isn’t the first time that such unaccountable practices have left you in the lurch. You will recall your pleasure on waking up to find out that Respect was collapsing and that it was over fights that had been going on for ages which no one informed you about. But this is much worse. They expect you to go to your activist circles, your union, your workplaces, and argue something that is indefensible
Richard Seymour is right to put this despicable affair in its proper context, that of a failing, undemocratic, unsocialist party ruled by a nomenklatura of central committee members and hacks, lurching from crisis to crisis, with no real answers to contemporary crisises other than what can be gleamed from the moldering manuscripts of the party’s founder, Tony Cliff. That the CC would cover up sexual assault was only a matter of time, as the leadership has been busy for years if not decades creating the very atmosphere in which these attacks thrive.
The SWP has always been dedicated to the principle of democratic centralism, in which policy and ideological decisions are supposed to be taken by the leadership as a whole, then directed by the central committee, with no room for base politics once these decisions have been made. This is of course rife to abuse and it has long since degenerated into a mockery of socialist democracy: the central leadership is free to think out and dictate policy on its own whim, with no democratic oversight whatsoever, as all room for debate has been removed from the party except for during ritualised conventions.
Sandra, though an active member of the SWP for years, was quite aware of these failings, summing them up as the party being ruled by a generation of professional activists convinced it’s still 1973 and the revolution is right around the corner, but she was equally convinced that flawed as it was, the SWP was one of the few, if not the only political organisation capable and willing to remake the inequalities in our society. But, no matter how cynical she was, I don’t think that she expected the leadership to be as clueless and evil as to coverup sexual assault; nor would she have wanted to stay in such a party.
One of the more persistent nuisances in British politics is the eagerness in which the government of the day launch populist attacks against the European Court of Human Rights when it rules against them. Whether it’s a Labour or a ConDem government, whenever a ruling goes against them, British sovereignty is endangered by faceless Strasburg Eurocrats and how dare they overrule parliament as the ultimate will of the people. Never mind that Britain has voluntarily chosen to be subjected to the court, or that it doesn’t do anything different from what the UK’s own courts do, i.e. examine government decisions to see if they were made in compliance with the law and if necessary condemn them. That’s an integral part of any true democracy, to have an independent judiciary which can protect the ordinary citizen from governmental abuse of power: parliament to make laws, the government to execute power and the courts to uphold the laws. This is neither new nor controversial, but because this is an European court it’s easier to whip up resentment against it.
Which, to be perfectly clear, is just a special case of the general political resentment against the independent judiciary both Tories and New Labour have had for decades. This was something of a bête noire for Sandra, who as both a trained lawyer and a socialist could get incredibly angry about the way the law was treated, especially by New Labour, busy creating a flood of mostly unenforcable new laws while ignoring existing laws and jurisprudence. She thought that a government so packed full of lawyers should know the limits of the law and what it could and couldn’t do and why it is dangerous for any government to ignore and disrespect it.
In the case of the European Court of Human Rights the damage populist outbursts against it don’t limit themselves to Britain, but far abroad. Though in the UK the ECHR is only mentioned in the context of British court cases, these are only a vanishingly small percentage of its workload; much more important is the role it plays in countries like Russia, countries where the domestic courts are often unable or unwilling to enforce domestic or European legislation both when it’s against the state’s interests. AS Oliver Bullough explains:
The ECtHR’s intray is, as Cameron said, bulging. There are 15,000 pending applications from Turkey, 13,000 from Italy, 12,000 from Romania and 10,000 from Ukraine. But it is Russia that provides the most. Some 40,000 cases from Russia were outstanding by the end of last year, which is more than a quarter of the total.
Russian courts have been reformed since the end of the Soviet Union, but there may as well not have been. Despite efforts to bring in jury trials, transparency and so on, some 98 percent of cases still end in a conviction. In some regions – such as Krasnodar in the south – if the state prosecutors open a case against you and take you to court, you will 100 percent of the time be found guilty.
As it happened, while the British press was fixating on the government’s failure to get Abu Qatada out of the country, these two rulings on Tuesday, April 17 were quietly demonstrating the full range of work that the court does to provide justice for Russian citizens let down by their own court system.
At one extreme, there was a finding in favour of a Chechen woman whose husband had been killed by Russian soldiers. At the other extreme, the court was protecting the rights of those same Russian soldiers against the Russian state. It is hard to imagine how a day’s caseload could be more indicative of the legal nihilism that Russia has sunk into or the importance of Strasbourg in opposing it. In both examples, Russian officials delayed, obfuscated and failed to do the duties they were supposed to do, until the ECtHR slapped them down.
Seen in this context, the concerns British politicans have about the court are revealed for the petty nonsense that they are, but their rhetoric does a lot of harm nonetheless:
The torrent of decisions has not gone un-noticed by top officials. A court decision last summer forcing Russia to give paternity leave to servicemen provoked Alexander Torshin, then acting speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, to propose a new law that would guarantee the supremacy of Russian courts over the ECtHR.
“I think that, with its new practices, the Strasbourg Court, departing from the bounds of the European Convention, has moved into the area of the state sovereignty of Russia, and is trying to dictate to the national lawmaker which legal acts it must adopt, which thus violates the principle of the superiority of the Constitution of the Russian Federation in the legal system of our state,” he wrote in an article in the government’s own newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
He then listed other countries that have had trouble with the court over the years – Germany, Britain, Switzerland and Austria – using their efforts to find a way to square their own legislation with the court as justification for his own bill.
Although the bill has not got anywhere since it was mooted in July, his article was a clear sign that criticism of the court in western countries where it does little work is amplified in Russia where its work is crucial.
In other words, Cameron and Clegg, like Brown and Blair before them, give cover for authoritarian regimes in Russia and elsewhere in Europe with their petty, party political posturing, potentially allowing one of the few ways in which such governments can be held to account by their own citizens to be neutered. For those of us on the left this should be an incredibly dangerous development, even if we’re often skeptical of the use the courts and the law are put through, as they’re still one of the few ways in which ordinary people can fight back agains the state and without them our own struggles will be that much harder.
Further confirmation that the supposed gap between the great mass of lawfully protesting DecentOrdinaryFolk and the StudentRadicals of UK Uncut is not as great as certain career opportunists might want us to think, here’s a letter of support for UK Uncut signed by various union and NGO bigwigs:
UK Uncut have played a significant part in changing the terms of debate around economic policy in the UK and have been praised by politicians and the media for doing so.
Indeed UK Uncut played a key role in ensuring that more people were at the march on Saturday than otherwise would have been. At all times they acted in a way which complemented and supported the TUC march.
However, in taking the type of peaceful action which UK Uncut routinely undertake on Saturday, targeting Fortnum and Mason on this occasion, they were treated in a political and deceptive manner by the police which sends an ominous message about the right to protest.
It would appear activists were misled by the police about not being arrested when asked to leave the Fortnum and Mason building, after which they were held for a significant length of time, their clothing was confiscated and they have been denied the right to protest in the near future.
This situation has now been seized on by the media and politicians to further threaten the right to protest. UK Uncut activists have been blamed for damage they did not cause and this story has become a substitute for discussion of the real issues raised by UK Uncut and the TUC march in general.
You could set your alarm by it, it’s so predicable: that moment in every large scale protest movement where the opportunists start to concern troll their more radical allies, usually echoing rightwing propaganda when doing so. With the 2001-2003 protests against the War on Afghanistan and the War on Iraq, it was ANSWER, a smallish antiwar organisation that had taken the lead in organising protests when most liberals were still wringing their hands on whether or not they could trust Bush to run their war, that suddenly was the bogeyman when more respectable organisations and people finally jointed the antiwar movement. It supposedly had ties to groups that supposedly had ties to groups that supposedly had ties to terrorists and there were some *gasp* communists amongst its members and of course the people attacking ANSWER were not McCarthyites, but surely we should not let such a controversial group lead our antiwar protests, think of what it would look like to Middle America… The result was a divided and weakened American antiwar movement that found it that much harder to oppose these wars, but at least various centrists and liberals had shown how serious they were.
In the fight against the ConDem cuts we’ve now reached the point where both the Labour Party and the TUC are on board and helping to organise mass demonstrations like the March 26 demos in London, which had some 500,000 people marching, as well as saw more radical groups repeating the same tactics that had been used in earlier protests, including the early student protest: attacking and occupying shops owned by tax cheats and other symbols of the economic order that had fucked up Britain and made the cuts “necessary”.
With Labour and the TUC now directly in the picture, it was therefore inevitable that the professional pearl clutchers would start to doubledown on condemning these “childish vandals” and Oxbridge student activists (an old favourite) and accusing them of trying to hijack the movement, contrasting them to the thousands of real working people trying to have a decent, peaceful, lawful protest and who disapproved mightely of these antics. None did so more pompously than Anthony Painter, who ended his sermon like this:
The group’s retail outlet of protest choice is TopShop. Instant gratification consumerism has a mirror image in instant gratification politics. The dopamine rush of credit card financed prêt-a-porter fashion finds its corollary in the jejune fantasies of the retail activist chic. Meanwhile, those who are really hit hard continue to suffer.
I hope the TUC continues marching. I hope it gives voice to the voiceless in every village, town, and city in the land. UK Uncut owes a lot of apologies. Without trading Martin Luther King quotes – a glib game as we have seen – better instead to respect and understand his legacy. We can overcome. But only if we are wise. A small minority were not only unwise on Saturday. They were downright dumb.
(Oddly enough this appeal to end senseless violence and concentrate on lawful ways of protest does nothing so much as make me want to punch his smug, fat face in — childish, I know.)
Thing is, as anybody not gripped by tabloid hysteria knows, this supposed divide between ordinary folk decently protesting and evil anarchists just does not exist. Take the eighties squatters riots in Amsterdam for example, huge violent affairs in which the city centre was the battlefield between hardcore anarchists and riot police, whole streets ripped up to throw at the police etc etc, yet support for the squatters movement was never greater. That’s because quite a few ordinary, non-political people could actually see for themselves that the squatters had a point, that it was a scandal that private landlords let buildings rot away when so many people could not find housing at all.
The same goes for UKUncut and its occupation of Fortnum: for all the tabloid hysteria, plenty of people have no problem seeing the same rich bastard that caused the crisis that might cost them their own jobs suffer a bit. You can’t split the uncut protestors into two groups of supposed vandals ruining it for everybody and decent, hardworking ordinary people just wanting to have a meaningful protest. Criticising a particular kind of protest is of course legitimate, but demonising them and the people who undertook them will only serve your opponents cause. What somebody like Painter does is helping to divide the anticuts movement, which doesn’t help anybody but the ConDems. If you worry more about policing what those on your side are doing than what you can do to put the pressure on the real enemy, you are the enemy.
Jack Crow’s post, “abandoning the past sometimes allows you to see better the present…” starts off well, but dissolves into a familiar prolier-than-thou appeal to drop “our” preconvictions about revolutions and who should lead them:
The working class, the colonized, the oppressed, the alienated and the poor don’t need theories conjured up in academic discussions, in the coffee houses which line the well paved streets of upper class neighborhoods. They don’t need special vocabularies and essays on superstructure, intersectionality and sociocultural meta-meta critique.
If there’s any socialist cliche that needs abandoning it’s the supposed contradiction between the educated ivory tower intellectual and the oppressed working classes. It’s the leftwing version of the “salt of the earth, white working class man telling it like it is”: only evoked to push through the writer’s own prejudices. Crow wants to have his cake and eat it too, by both putting himself above the “The working class, the colonized, the oppressed, the alienated and the poor” and telling us that he knows what they want.
This sort of rhetorical trick presupposes both that intellectuals cannot be part of the working classes and that the working classes cannot do theory, cannot be intellectuals themselves. This sort of distinction might have made some sense in the nineteenth century, but in today’s world most of us “intellectuals” are just as much wage slaves as your average factory workers are.
Jack Crow very much has a point that reifying dead, white Marxists is counterproductive when it comes to understanding why the Egyptian revolution is happening now, that even Marx himself can be wrong or outdated and that his works at best hands us a tool to help understand the world, not a prefabricated solution. A pity he falls into the same outdated cliches himself at the end of his post.
As Roy Edrose has shown time and again, to analyse and judge any artwork soley on its political merits is a fool’s game, as he dissects yet another hapless rightwing culture warrior failing to understand why the latest Hollywood blockbuster is not best viewed as a potential liberal propaganda vehicle. You find such naive appraisals of art on the left as well, but its heyday has long passed and most leftist culture critics are more subtle than that, able to both see the political dimension in art and still appreciate it on artistic merits as well.
Not always though.
On the Australian Socialist Alternative website, one Tom O’Lincoln is struggling to determine whether or not Rammstein is a leftist band or just plain fascist:
People call them far-right wing, and you can see where this impression comes from. With the extreme costumes and pyrotechnics, their concerts do have moments that look like some kind of post-modern Nuremberg rally. Till Lindemann’s bunker-busting voice sounds menacing and his long trilled r’s are reminiscent of Hitler.
So one critic called their work “music to invade Poland to”, and the New York Times thought Lindemann exuded such macho aggression that “it seemed he could have reached into the crowd, snatched up a fan, and bitten off his head”. Rammstein once got a lot of flak for featuring Leni Riefenstahl propaganda clips, and neo-Nazis have used their material – without permission. But they responded to accusations of being right wing or neo-Nazi with a 2001 number called Links (Left) 2,3,4 which declared:
Sie wollen mein Herz am rechten Fleck
Doch seh ich dann nach unten weg
Da schlägt es links.
They want my heartbeat on the right
But whenever I look down
It’s beating on the left.
Does that settle the question? No it doesn’t, as we’ll see. Neither can you settle it by reading all their lyrics. Firstly the English translations are seriously unreliable (I’ve done my own). But secondly, that’s nobody’s fault, because even German speakers will wrestle with the deliberate ambiguity of just about everything these guys write.
A glimmering of understanding in that last paragraph, but unfortunately O’Lincoln spents the rest of the article just doing that which he himself just said is pointless: analysing Rammstein’s lyrics to see if any clues to their political orientation can be found there. He concludes:
To be on the left means a responsibility to make a clear statement on the issues you raise. This Rammstein often fail to do.
Which is about the worst kind of pronouncement you can make about art, to call for an end to all ambiguity and to want rigidly defined areas of doubt.
Propaganda needs clear, simple statements. Art doesn’t. What Rammstein is doing with their music is much more complex by that and any attempt to find an explicit political message in it, whether fascist or socialist, is doomed to failure, as that’s not what they are interested in. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t anything interesting to be found in looking at Rammstein in a political context, but it does mean more than just a cursory scan of their song texts and actually analysing them, contextualising them and engaging with them. Not just showing that the lyrics in Wollt Ihr Das Bett in Flammen Sehen are misogynistic, not just explaining how they are, but why they are, how the song fits in with the rest of their work.
But that’s much harder than what Tom O’Lincoln did.