Thursday, 27 November 2008

Apols (again) for the hiatus...

Perhaps I have blogger's block. Perhaps I am just a SlowBlogger (see below). Perhaps I don't want to be made to look a fool by events. In any case, I hope to get a few posts up in the next few days.

Thanks for your patience!

The bloggers who take it one post at a time
Jon Henley, The Guardian, Wednesday November 26 2008

There's SlowSex (apparently; first I'd heard of it), SlowCities, and SlowFood. Now, the New York Times reports, there is also Slow Blogging, which Todd Sieling, a Canadian technology consultant, defined in a manifesto as "a rejection of immediacy ... an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly". This is an idea that appeals to me. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in the mot juste. Words, as a rule, are better weighed before use, and too many blog posts - and particularly blog comments - are, well, not.

So I can but agree with Sieling when he proclaims that Slow Blogging is "speaking like it matters, like the pixels that give your words form are precious and rare"; represents "a willingness to remain silent amid the daily outrages and ecstasies that fill nothing more than single moments in time"; marks "the re-establishment of the machine as the agent of human expression, rather than its whip".

Like SlowFood, born in Italy of the conviction that fast food was as bad for local tradition as it was for your health, Slow Blogging is a response to the notion that fast blogging can be bad for both author and audience. For the time being, Slow Bloggers write mainly about subjects such as life in the countryside, philosophy and 19th-century literature (and, naturally, about the phenomenon of Slow Blogging). Amid what David D Perlmutter, author of Blogwars, calls the "many, loud and raucous voices" out there, on a myriad blogs, on MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and all the rest, they tend to be "coherent and responsible, intelligent and precise".

So let's hear it for all those who take the time to think, study and reflect before they post; who do not feel the need to slap the first thing that comes out of their head straight onto the web. People who refuse to update five times a day, or even once a week. People who value quality over quantity. People, in short, like Sieling - who is not in fact blogging at all any more, because no one was reading him. But that's the interweb for you.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Scrambling around the Memory Hole

John Hurt as Winston Smith in the Ministry of Truth in the film of '1984'.

Well, not exactly bits and pieces no-one knows about, but some interesting quotes I've come across over time that in the last few days I've got around to collating. Drop them into essays and conversations as and when you see fit!

"Anyone who talks of the literature of political science risks being suspected of irony. Few political scientists write books that give their readers pleasure....fewer yet have written anything that is likely to endure....Since the second world war the academic study of politics has been dominated by an effort to replicate the methods and success of the natural sciences, The chief result has been a new genre of unreadable books." John Gray 'How to dish the Whigs' New Statesman, 27/6/97, p.45.

"Law and governments may be considered in this and indeed in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor and preserve themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise soon be destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence." Adam Smith, quoted in Class War (1992) Unfinished Business (Stirling: AK Press), p.42.

"...the fancied or real insecurity of capital, when not under the immediate control of its owner, together with the natural disinclination which every man has to quit the country of his birth and connection, and intrust himself with all his habits fixed, to a stange government and new laws, checks the emigration of capital. These feelings, which I would be sorry to see weakened, induce most men of property to be satisfied with a low rate of profits in their own country, rather than seek a more advantageous employment for their wealth in foreign nations." David Ricardo, quoted in Michael Woodin and Caroline Lucas (2004) Green Alternatives to Globalisation: A Manifesto (Pluto Press), p.8.

"I sympathise, therefore, with those who would minimise rather than with those who would maximise economic entanglements between nations. Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel- these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be home-spun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and above all, let finance be primarily national." John Maynard Keynes, quoted in Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson (1998) The Age of Insecurity (Verso), p.229.

"As far as Trotskyism is concerned, in part it involved a recognition of very ugly things that were happening in the Soviet Union. But it never, by definition, involved any real critical analysis of those developments. After all, who was Trotsky? Trotsky was Lenin's associate. Whatever he may have said during periods when he didn't have power, either prior to the revolution or after he was kicked out, when it was easy to be a libertarian critic, it was when he did have power that the real Trotsky emerged. That Trotsky was the one who labored to destroy and undermine the popular organizations of workers in the Soviet Union, the factory councils and soviets, who wanted to subordinate the working class to the will of the maximum leader and to institute a program of militarization of labor in the totalitarian society that he and Lenin were constructing. That was the real Trotsky- not only the Trotsky who sent his troops to Kronstadt and wiped out Makhno's peasant forces once they were no longer needed to fend off the Whites, but the Trotsky who, from the very first moment of access to power, moved to undermine popular organizations and to institute highly coercive structures in which he and his associates would have absolute authority, with absolute submission of the working population to these leaders. That was the essential doctrine of Trotskyism in power, whatever he may have said before or after." Noam Chomsky in James Peck, ed., (1988) The Chomsky Reader (Serpent's Tail), pp.40-41.

"The people who write that kind of stuff never fight; possibly they believe that to write it is a substitute for fighting. It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front-line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours." George Orwell, (2000 [1938])Homage to Catalonia, (Penguin), p.209.

"I think we overestimate the value of American money and American aid to other nations. No people can make over another people. Every nation must solve its own problems; and whatever we do can only be of slight assistance....A nation that comes to rely on gifts and loans from others is too likely to postpone, the essential, tough measures necessary for its own is almost a subsidy to the business of investment bankers, and will also undoubtedly increase the business to be done by the larger banks." Republican Senator Robert Taft, in attacking the creation of the World Bank in 1945. Quoted in David C. Korten (1999) When Corporations Rule the World (Earthscan), pp.167-68.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Radicalism & Conservatism: Thinking Aloud

Anyone got a better political compass?!

I'll begin with a Parish Notice: the Greens came third in the Kentish Town bye-election. The Lib Dems won, despite their erstwhile councillor disappearing to Arizona. I was invited to a Green post-election drink/meal tonight, but I'm trying to get 100% over my chill and it has been chucking buckets here since lunchtime, so I'm giving it a miss.

I've been going through notes I've had in folders and files over the years this evening, and along with some stuff which has been going through my mind while I've been going 'woe is me' with my chill, I thought I'd might as well share them with a wider audience.

'Radicalism' and 'Conservatism' are words that are used in politics to pretty much describe anything. Not as bad as, say, using 'Socialism' or 'Fascism' as political swear words, but not far off. However, 'radicals' can be described as people who want to change things politically, while 'conservatives' want to conserve things. I call myself an 'English Radical', but not an 'English radical', as 'English Radicalism' is recognised as a phrase encompassing a number of ideas and historical figures/movements ie the idea of a post-1066 'Norman Yoke'; the Levellers; Tom Paine; the Chartists; William Morris; GDH Cole. An 'English radical', on the other hand, is just an English person who happens to be 'radical'.

However, most people would associate political 'Radicalism' with 'the Left' (don't get me started...) and/or Socialism, while Conservatism is associated with 'the Right' and/or Capitalism. However, is that the right way to look at politics? I am reminded of a John Le Carre quote I posted up a few months back:

"The mere fact that communism didn't work doesn't mean that capitalism does. In many parts of the globe it's a wrecking, terrible force, displacing people, ruining lifestyles, traditions, ecologies and stable systems with the same ruthlessness as communism." (Times Higher Educational Supplement, 20/6/97, p.11.)

If Conservatism = Capitalism, surely it should not be 'The World Turned Upside Down' (to use a good phrase from the English Civil Wars) in the same way Communism promised to? Then I think of the Communist Manifesto: the capitalism and capitalists Charlie and Fred describe are hardly 'forces of conservatism' (to use a Blairism- Tony not Lionel):

"The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." (David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.224.)

From a different perspective then, Capitalism (or the corporate, globalising version) can be considered to be dangerously 'radical', not 'conservative'. At the same time, I think a lot of 'Left/Socialist' political activity can be seen as 'conservative'. That is, it is activity that(usually rightly) tries to conserve jobs, health and social services, educational institutions, the environment etc from rapacious corporations and financial institutions.

So I think it is quite respectable to be both a political 'radical' and a political 'conservative'. Better than being a corporate frontperson, that's for sure! A lot of the current unease about the crisis in the global financial system stems from the wish of individuals to see their savings/job/home protected and/or conserved from the rapaciousness of institutions that wish to turn all that is solid for individuals into air.

Looking through my files I found notes I made probably about ten years back from a book I got from the local library by Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook called The Revolt Against Change: Towards a Conserving Radicalism (1993: Vintage). Here's what I wrote down:

"...the reason why parties advocating radical change were so unsuccessful was because they were striking against the resistance of people who had changed. who had been compelled to change, too much."(p.3)

"...the only radical politics left to us should be based upon resistance, recuperation and remembering."(p.4)

"To talk about the people's refusal to change has a curious resonance at the end of a period of two hundred years which have seen nothing but incessant, remorseless change. If there is one thing which is obvious to anybody it is that the last two centuries have been a period of unprecedented change."(p.11)

"The conservatism of the people has been stolen by a social and economic system which can never deliver to them the security which is at the heart of their conservative impulse."
...true radicalism does not consist in tearing up society by its roots..., but on the contrary, returns to those roots in order to nourish their survival and sturdy growth." (p.56)

"...a true conservatism (preserving what is of value) is seen to be in opposition to its false namesake (maintaining industrial society); just as a true radicalism (fundamental change) stands against its counterfeit (endless uprootings by the industrial system)." (p.64)

"To be radical now is to resist the ever more invasive intrusions of a world system that can afford to leave nothing alone, but that must open up new pathways to profit deep in the still unexploited fastnesses of the heart, the secret depths of the psyche, even when it goes about its global privatisations...To be radical now is to say we want to be left alone to determine our lives, to say that our needs are more important than the system's necessities."

"The radicals and true conservatives both know that there are things that are beyond price, and that this precious inheritance sustains us all. A conservatism that has thrown in its lot with universal market forces has lost its roots; and a radicalism that accepts the gratuitious tearing up of all that is rooted in human experience could have no idea where it is going."(pp.95-6).

"In the existing order, the apparent oppostion of conservatism and radicalism conceals their common subordination. Both tend solely to a conserving of profit; and the means whereby this is attained is through continuous change and upheaval." (p.96)

"It should be a characteristic of the new radicalism that the people should determine their own role and function in bringing about social change and safeguarding human activities."(p.97)

While typing these extracts out, it did occur to me that while people are often 'out-radicalised' politically and culturally (ie "I'm more of a socialist/Leninist/Eurosceptic/punk/Muslim than you/thou")people are rarely 'out-conserved'. I might try it out at some point:

"We get our freedoms from Magna Carta."
"No, we get them from the Anglo-Saxons, Norman-lover."

"It's traditional to smoke in pubs."
"Only in the last four hundred years. By the way, did you know cancer cures smoking?"

"This is a Christian country."
"Tell the Druids that."

But I digress...

I probably would not have put this post up without this recent one by Chris Dillow:

October 08, 2008: conservatives for revolution

James Delingpole says of Ian Hislop:

I think he’s a bit like Jeremy Paxman — another of those handsomely remunerated, public-school-educated presenters who believes in most of the things a Tory ought to believe in (the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, riding to hounds, warm beer, Brief Encounter, probably).

But I too believe in these things - especially as Britain‘s Most Evil Man doesn‘t.

Indeed, I suspect a reverence for English traditions is more common on the Left than amongst the Conservative Party. Neil Clark’s tastes border on the reactionary; Francis Sedgemore is a Morrisman; you’ll struggle to find a Conservative voter at a meeting of CAMRA or at a Martin Carthy gig. [I did leave a comment to this post to say that CAMRA's public face, Roger Protz, used to be 'Socialist Worker' editor in the early 1970s.] And when Shuggy writes that “our culture seems incapable of expressing disapproval of something unless it can be shown that someone's rights have been violated” he is expressing a conservative view.

Many leftists, then, have Tory sentiments. And many Conservatives do not; David Cameron's Desert Island Discs are not those of a conservative.

Which raises the point - that the conservative temperament and the Conservative party are two completely different things - indeed, two opposed things.

One reason for this is that the pursuit of profit - which Conservatives support - destroys the traditions loved by conservatives. As Marx and Engels said:
Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.

Another reason is that the conservative temperament is sceptical of individuals’ new ideas, and of anyone‘s claim to know better. As Oakeshott put it: “it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom.” The conservative prefers the tried and trusted to the new; he prefers to back the field than any particular horse.

But bosses reject all this. Their claim to power - in business or in government - is a claim to an especial expertise. And the Conservative party, at least in my lifetime, has been the party of bosses.

The conservative temperament gave us mutual building societies, with their local roots and long traditions. The Conservative party gave us the demutualized societies, which blew up spectacularly.

The conservative disposition, then, to use Oakeshott’s phrase, is opposed to Conservative politics. Bryan is right: socialism is “certainly not in conflict with true conservatism.”

I’d go further. One reason why I have revolutionary sympathies is precisely that I have a conservative disposition.

For one thing, in replacing hierarchy with co-ops is one way (the only way?) to assert the wisdom of crowds and the tacit knowledge embodied by professional and craft traditions over the spurious rationalism of managerialist ideology.
And for another, institutions - in the long-run - shape character. And the conservative temperament sees much to bemoan in the modern character: the saccharine displays of public emotion; the supine expectation of “leadership” from those above us; the inability to stand on one’s own two feet and face the responsibility of one’s own actions; the demise of virtue and rise of priggish rule-following; the pursuit of external rather than internal goods ; and the demand that we “respect” others’ sensibilities regardless of their imbecility.

If such widespread failings of character are to be reversed, we might need radical institutional change.

In this sense, revolution and conservatism are compatible.

The reference to public schools at the start reminds me of the description of old Etonian George Orwell as being conservative in everything except politics. I've been struck by the similarities in his personal tastes with those of a proper cultural and political conservative, J.R.R. Tolkien. George:

"Outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening, especially vegetable gardening. I like English cookery and English beer, French red wines, Spanish white wines, Indian tea, strong tobacco, coal fires, candlelight and comfortable chairs. I dislike big towns, noise, motor cars, the radio, tinned food, central heating and 'modern' furniture." (Gordon Bowker, George Orwell, Abacus, 2004, p.263).


"I like gardens, trees and unmechanised farmlands. I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking...I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour...;I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much." Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien , Harper Collins, 1995, pp.288-9.

(BTW For a few years I have somewhere in my mind a plan to write a 'compare/contrast' piece on Orwell and Tolkien, but I have a feeling it might never be started. Apart from their major differences on Catholicism and politics, I think they would have got on, especially with their respective interests in the nature of power and language, as well as their love of English nature. Orwell's first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, read English at Oxford, and one of her teachers was Tolkien (Bowker, op cit, p.167.)

Now this post has ended up at Tolkien, another set of notes I've found this evening are on Meredith Veldman's 1994 book (Cambridge University Press) Fantasy, the Bomb and the Greening of Britain: Romantic Protest, 1945-1980 which I first came aware of via Patrick Wright's review in the Guardian on St.George's Day aka Shakespeare's Birthday/Death called 'How the Hobbits saved the world'. I eventually got around to reading it (and making notes) a few years later. The inspiration for Veldman's book was when she was reading both The Lord of the Rings and E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class while working as an academic in Chicago and finding them extremely similar in tone. In her book Veldman traces the roots of romantic revolt in the British Isles against industrialism from the late Eighteenth Century through to the anti-nuclear protests of the post-1945 period. Some of these "romantic protests" have extremely dodgy politics (the Soil Association, worthwhile organisation that it is now, was part-founded by people with pro-Fascist/Nazi ties (Veldman, p.202) but there were also very democratic ones, in both political and economic terms (ie G.D.H. Cole and 'Guild Socialism'; G.K. Chesterton and 'Distributism'). I intend to discuss them, and other themes from Veldman's book, sooner rather than later.

I think I've strayed a bit in this post away from discussing radicalism and conservatism. That's thinking aloud, I guess. I hate writing conclusions, but I would say that I think there is room for democratic 'radicals' that don't hold onto Big Business or Big Government (including those who think quoting Lenin makes Big Government better for ordinary people) and democratic 'conservatives' who don't cheerlead for the Corporations (and aren't obsessed with Race and/or Religion) to get together, discuss things and work together. Perhaps I haven't persuaded people so, but I hope that you've found this post interesting, one way or another!