Thursday, 30 October 2014

Russell Brand, a deepening threat to 'entitled' liberal voices

Newsnight presenter Evan Davis's interview with Russell Brand has elicited much denunciation from an indignant liberal commentariat.

Announcing her latest Sunday Times column, Camilla Long tweeted: "PLEASE can someone tell me what we did to deserve "prancing perm on a stick" Russell Brand as a "voice"?"  Why, laments Hadley Freeman at the Guardian, does this purveyor of "ecstatic hypomania", and chauffeur-driven celeb, have the right to pontificate about poverty, injustice and revolution? Over at the Observer, Nick Cohen sneers that Brand is nothing more than a "barmy Beverly Hills Buddhist" with a dearth of alternatives, and should be shunned by the 'gullible' left. 

As with past demonisations of Julian Assange, so much of this is written in smug-liberal 'house style', the sharply-honed barbs grasping for editorial approval.

But beneath all these caustic words, an even more venomous question lurks: why, they really crave to know, is Brand getting all this attention?

Might such animosity be less about his 'infantile' ideas than the discomfiture of Brand threatening to usurp their 'appointed' roles as 'entitled critics', 'public guardians' and 'political reformers'?     

Though we weren't supposed to notice, the Newsnight interview said as much about why people like Davis, rather than Brand, get to where they are; how their words, ideas and worldviews are so widely registered and safely internalised.

Throughout the interview, Davis spoke the lines of homo-economicus, immersed in the business mindset, at one stage flashing-up a cold graph of real post-war wages. His point? That, despite the 'current dip', capitalism has delivered, overall.

But where was the human context? There was no mention of the profound power capitalism has wielded over every aspect of daily life, no suggestion of the staggering inequalities, mental anguish, alienation, despair, greed, misery and murder of the market system. And certainly no admission of the considerable role a capitalist media has played in all of that.  

In a sense, Davis and Brand weren't even in the same studio. Davis, fixated with statistical 'realities', seemed to be 'hearing' Brand's concerns about corporate capitalism and its monolithic sovereignty - economic, political, social, ecological, cultural - as though it were some kind of unintelligible language.

While Davis may see many problems with capitalism, notably as technocratic issues of production, supply, demand, growth, and even the 'costs' of inequality, he still speaks as though it's the definitive order, the norm. Anyone trying to question that orthodoxy, particularly 'non-expert' voices like Brand, are treated as little more than comedian acts, albeit fascinating ones, to be chided and ridiculed. 

Besides boosting ratings and playing 'street populism', the Newsnight piece was an editorial ambush, picking-out and distorting a tiny line about 9/11 from Brand's book. No sooner was the interview aired than editor Ian Katz was tweeting implied slurs about Brand's 'receptiveness' to conspiracy theories. 

Davis also asked Brand why he doesn't stand for political office, an illustration, like the narrow view of capitalism, of the template liberal politics we're encouraged to accept, and why figures like Davis are trusted to be on Newsnight helping to keep it so.   

Any hostile chain reaction to Brand says as much about our routine exposure to Davis's 'sensible' establishment language as it does to Brand's seemingly 'madcap' declarations. In effect, Brand's views only 'stand out' as 'insane' because we're so relentlessly conditioned to see the standard line as sane.

From the smear-laden Independent to a spluttering Daily Mail, sniping dismissals of Brand's 'revolutionary utopianism' allow easy reduction of his arguments to that of showman fraudster. Yet, are we really to believe that Brand sat down with a devious glint and invented some radically-costumed identity in order to sell a tour, a book or other financially-rewarding prop?

Even if Brand is, or gets treated as, some kind of a passing fad, what he's saying about corporate power, consumer culture, media propaganda, environmental calamity and the wider deprivation of humanity deserves all the airing it can get right now.

If it's a choice between gloating, career journalists using large establishment-corporate media to take-down Brand, or small independent media like Brand's Trews helping to expose power-friendly celebs like Boris Johnson and the influence of that corporate media, I know which version I'm approving.

And if Brand one day does takes the full establishment shilling, or revokes all he's said, so what? If we don't have him already up there on the personal pedestal, never mind the 'Jesus altar', we're at least spared the task of those tortured liberal iconoclasts in having to bring him down.

There's no need to idealise and 'follow' Brand, or even expect that he lay out some kind of detailed manifesto. It's enough that he's helping to subvert authority, indict corporate life, expose his insecure media critics, and promote the need for a real humanitarian and, yes, revolutionary consciousness.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Owen Jones, his No advocacy and the Establishment

Following previous discussion, a further comment on Owen Jones and the referendum.

Jones has tweeted in an exchange that:
I never advocated a vote. Here’s some pieces
Not true. Firstly, the Guardian pieces he cites (the latter already referenced in my previous blog piece) are criticisms of political bullying and establishment blackmail. Fair enough. It's denouncing what should have been obvious. He's also saying it's up to the Scottish people, another obvious truism. But he's certainly not advocating for Yes. 
Listen here to Jones in this Huffington Post interview (also previously referenced) and decide whether he's advocating a No vote.
He's asked, via a tweet: 
"How can you be be anti-establishment, Owen, and not campaign strongly for Scottish independence?"
Jones responds that, if he had a vote, he would vote No. 

After making various appeals to historical class unity, and targeting the SNP - a diversionary line consistently adopted by the No establishment - he tries to mitigate his declaration by saying he will "cheer on" Scotland if it votes Yes. This is the classic prevarication of the Guardian liberal. He wants it both ways, to cover his 'radical' back. How can you "cheer on" a result you didn't actually advocate?
Billy Bragg showed his radical advocacy in decisively supporting Yes. So did Tariq Ali. So did Ken Loach. So, for that matter, did Guardian columnist George Monbiot. None had a vote. But they all argued openly and hopefully for radical independence. Owen Jones is supposed to be the defining 'people's radical'. He took a No position. Why? Essentially, because, unlike most of those real radicals mentioned, he's deeply wedded to Labour. None of which precludes him from criticising that party. He regularly attacks New Labour, and denounced its conduct in the referendum. But that's quite different from abandoning the party or, as was shown, taking a Yes line. In particular, given Jones's major standing amongst Labour supporters, his decision not to advocate for Yes is likely to have helped floating Labour voters sway to No.

Jones is closely tied to traditional Labour and its trade union hinterland. He speaks regularly at Labour, union and May Day events. There's even talk he may stand as a Labour MP. Even if critical of neoliberal Labourism, he's not likely to venture very much from that core affiliation. Even then, his distance from Miliband isn't that far or disapproving. As noted, Jones is also on a particular mission to rescue Labour - as in talking up Alan Johnson's possible return to the ranks as next May's election approaches. This is not someone who was ever likely to pitch in with any anti-Labour Yes movement.

Obviously, in case it needs saying, none of this is to question Jones's right to sit where he likes. But, as the whole might of the establishment was rolled out to secure a No, we're surely just as rightfully entitled to ask how 'radical' Jones was in failing to take an authentic anti-establishment position.    

Of course, claims that Jones is 'just part of the establishment' need to be qualified. He's quite obviously not part of any elite business establishment. However, he is part of a Labour establishment which, as the referendum showed, serves all the required functions of political hegemony. He's also, in effect, part of a Guardian-circled liberal establishment, which plays a similar political-cultural role in limiting the boundaries of radical left thought and change. This isn't just to do with Jones's Oxbridge education - even if it may have helped secure his approved place at the Guardian. The issue is what he says and does in relation to that journalistic position. And here Jones is found similarly wanting. If he's so dedicated to attacking the establishment, where's the exposure of the Guardian and its key liberal establishment function? 

Tony Benn, who Jones considers a hero and role model, wrote this of the Guardian:
'As I came away , on the bus, I thought: The Guardian represents a whole batch of journalists, from moderate right to moderate left – i.e. centre journalists – who, broadly speaking , like the status quo. They like the two-party system, with no real change. They’re quite happy to live under the aegis of the Americans and NATO; they are very keen on the European Union because the Commissioners control everything. They are very critical of the left, but would also be critical of a wild right-wing movement. They just are the Establishment. It is a society that suits them well. I should think that probably most of them send their kids to private schools. I should think a lot of them don’t use the National Health Service, but they tolerate it as the price you have to pay in order to keep the populace content. They’re not interested in me any more because they don’t think I have any power, and I can’t say I’m very interested in them, except as exhibits in a zoo'.
Benn, Tony (2013). A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries (Thanks to Peter, as cited at the Media Lens message board.)
Benn was unequivocal about the Guardian: "They just are the Establishment". Why can't Jones be so critically candid?

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Owen Jones, poverty, the referendum and his mission to save Labour

Owen Jones was in Glasgow last weekend making impassioned arguments for 'sticking together', ending low pay and tackling poverty. The STUC-organised march and rally was billed A Just Scotland. And who wouldn't wish for some of that?

But what's the use in wishing rather than doing? 

On September 18, the substantive part of 1.6 million people actually did something about challenging poverty, foodbank society and much more injustice besides. Something decisive. Something with real potential to change things, even if it was ultimately denied by a conniving political-corporate-media establishment. They voted Yes. 

Where did Owen Jones stand on that crucial action? Alas, in political effect, if not intent, with the same establishment forces urging No. Regrettably, still too many trade unionists did likewise.

Complementing his visit North, Jones produced a piece for the Sunday Mail/Daily Record - 'Scotland's Newspaper', we're told, and lead oracle for the Con-Dem-Lab Vow - lamenting (or maybe Lamonting) Scottish Labour's now possible demise, unless it 'finds its radical roots'.

"Scotland is crying out for radical politics", declared Jones, warning that parties who turn on their core voters will face the ultimate price in deserting support, as is now happening to Labour.

Jones also says of Labour's collapse:
Perhaps if the party rested on stronger foundations, they would have better survived the referendum debacle. But rather than setting out a progressive vision based on hope, of a new socially just Scotland within the framework of a federal Britain, they instead formed a catastrophic alliance with the Conservatives. 
Yet, while surely knowing that Labour were never going down that federal road, Jones stuck with the No option. Notable figures like Lesley Riddoch and Iain Macwhirter had once courted Devo-Max-type federalism, but, realising it wasn't ever on the cards, never mind the ballot, worked passionately for a Yes. Why didn't the 'more radical' Jones do likewise?

Even as Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and Brown were rushing out their shameless 'more powers promise', all backed by a mass exercise in corporate blackmail, Jones still resisted pitching in with with radical Yes. As the possibility of a Yes win loomed, Jones blamed the establishment and Labour negligence. In the aftermath, more faux indignation and condemnation of Miliband. 

Indeed, Owen, castigate Labour and the elite, but why claim you didn't have a better, more progressive choice than the status quo?     

Who would doubt Jones's socialistic motives and concern for the poor? But, compassion and solidarity aside, his referendum position has been underwritten by a more pressing political mission: to save Labour. And not just in Scotland. For Jones, this is an emergency assignment of UK importance.  

In one of his recent Guardian columns Jones wrote a hagiographic-styled tribute to ex-Labour minister Alan Johnson appealing for his return. Jones sees in Johnson a well-liked, self-effacing working-class bloke who could be an urgent antidote to Farage's UKIP. No matter that Johnson was an ardent Blairite, and remains an unrepentant supporter of the Iraq invasion. Amazingly, Jones also invokes ultra-Blairite/war interventionist John McTernan's own praise for Johnson here. Jones said he 'was just asked to write a profile of [Johnson] as the man'. Asked by whom, one wonders? Political portraiture or another timely favour in helping to rescue Labour before next May's election?

Jones is 'this season's' political 'pin-up', the media's go-to 'radical'. You can see the attraction for both the Oxbridge Guardian clique and lost Labour tribe. But that earnestness masks a public figure now deeply incorporated into the very system he critiques in his latest book, The Establishment

It's not just Jones's tailored pieces, as above, for the Guardian. Now a feted part of the journalistic liberal establishment, he's reluctant to shine a critical light on that side of the corporate media. 

Try asking Jones about those kind of contradictions, as Media Lens, in their customary searching and courteous manner, did recently, and you'll see the more reactive side:
as ever they [Media Lens] have absolutely no interest in reaching a mass audience and deeply resent anyone who does?
A disappointing and petty closure of discussion from Jones himself. He claims his principal task is getting 'the message' out to the 'widest audience'. Yet, what about the essence of that message? How more effective and reaching might it be if he felt truly free to criticise his host, the corporate-driven Guardian, and other system-serving media? 

With almost the entire Scottish and UK press, including the Guardian, lining up for No, where was Jones's substantive criticism in his Guardian column or his Record piece about the anti-democratic weight of that corporate media? And didn't his own basic No position give even more bulk to that media establishment onslaught?

Many leftists seem uneasy in criticising Jones. His fresh, populist persona acts like a protective shield. And, of course, there's much of his challenging thought to appreciate. One veteran street leftist I spoke to put it thus: the left's approval of Jones is 'like being thirsty in the desert'. With seemingly precious few radical orators around, progressives and social democrats naturally crave him. 

But all the Question Time appearances and ubiquity of 'the people's pundit' shouldn't blind us to Jones's own questionable politics. For those seeking deeper insight, consider Tariq Ali's truly authentic take on the Yes movement's rise, Labour's self-inflicted troubles, and, for good measure, Jones's and the Guardian's political/media postures on the independence issue. 

Like Ali, Jones sees the major political realignment in Scotland now underway, notably in the leftist shift from Labour to SNP, the Greens and smaller socialist parties. All good for Ali and Yes leftism, much more problematic for Jones's Labourite Unionism.  
In purest panic mode, parts of a once-safe Scottish Labour are now pushing for semi-autonomous status and a 'more radical' profile. As intimated in his Record piece, Jones is arguing for much the same necessary 'renewal'. But it's motivated primarily by a Guardian-type concern for Labour's electoral survival. All of which gives him about the same 'radical' cachet as Polly Toynbee.

Meanwhile, massively buoyed by the referendum campaign, Radical Independence are putting together a promising new Scottish Left Project, "based on the principles of radical social change: participatory democracy, democratic public ownership, the redistribution of wealth and power from the rich to the poor and full independence from the British state and its monarch."

Again, such ideals should, presumably, be right up Jones's street. So, why didn't he get behind that dynamic Yes movement in the first place? Because, like George Galloway's No campaign, cloaked in facile calls for 'class solidarity' and fearmongering about the SNP, Jones was motivated by the need to keep open the possibility of a UK Labour deliverance.

And it's not as though Jones wasn't well-warned about the myth of any Labour transformation: 
He and others remain convinced that the avowedly/explicitly right Labour Party is going to miraculously metamorphise into something of their grandfathers dreams. It won’t.
Yet, like the Guardian's squalid No editorial - 'Britain deserves another chance' - Jones wants us to keep faith with the illusion of some great Labour entitlement.

A month beyond Dark Friday, the broad left in Scotland is on a distinctly different, upbeat trajectory from Scottish and UK Labour, mobilising nicely for the coming electoral battles. Yet, it's galling to think that this same Yes left advancement could have been a reality post-independence - including the makings of a truly reformed Labour party. We could be preparing right now to push all that collective radicalism inside a parliament with fully secured powers.

Instead, we're still stuck in an archaic, war-addicted, Trident-holding state, facing some dreaded version of Con-Dem-Lab-UKIP neoliberal rule. We're also now lumped with Vow politics - or as Ian Bell has just summarised that vacuous bribe: 
By promising more while failing to say what more might mean, they promised nothing. Or rather, they promised a timetable for discussions to see if something could come from nothing.  
All of which makes it harder to swallow Owen Jones - from the No-supporting Guardian - talking about A Just Scotland and tackling poverty, while putting out life-saving alerts for Labour via its Unionist house paper, the Daily Record.

There's an historic level of animosity right now towards Labour in Scotland. Many are simply seething. Many will never forgive them for siding with the ConDems and taking a leading part in the establishment's Project Fear. Jones acknowledges much of this, but fails to concede his own negative part in that outcome.  

However, all that resentment needs to be channelled positively.  For a resilient and calmly-rising Yes movement, it shouldn't mean enduring hostility to No voters, particularly that more self-serving middle class. The longer route to radical independence will be enhanced by more decisive arguments for social justice and winning over greater numbers.

Nor should it involve particular antipathy towards people like Jones. It's not personal. It's not about hounding. Yet, such figures helped rationalise many of those No voters' consciences through moderated appeals to continued Labour Unionism. So it's certainly appropriate to highlight how such Labourite affinities and calls for abbreviated powers have helped keep Scotland and its poorest in political lockdown.

Applaud Jones's anti-poverty speeches, if you please. But be aware of the establishment-serving effects of his political positions, media output and the dedicated Labour bailout he's deeply engaged in.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

UK recognition of Palestinian state problematic, but still a useful stepping stone

The House of Commons has voted by 274-12  to recognise Palestine as a state. The resolved motion (with amendment), delivered in the late hours of Monday 13 October, reads:
That this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.
The first key point to note here is that this places the UK under no Governmental or parliamentary obligation to help bring about any such Palestinian state. Secondly, alongside re-stating adherence to the state of Israel, it serves to cement the deeply problematic Western posture of a 'negotiated two state solution'.

Taken together, the wording of the agreed motion with its amendment  - “a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution” - acknowledges the symbolic right to a future Palestinian state, but only, in actuality, as agreed to by Israel. In short, the motion can be seen as a protection of the Israeli state, and its right to determine the nature of any Palestinian one. 

Following a similar parliamentary decision by Sweden, Ali Abunimah made the very relevant point that:     
recognition of a Palestinian “state” in a fraction of Palestine actually negates the rights of most Palestinians and conflicts with the Palestinian right of self-determination. While recognizing the “State of Palestine” excites and pleases many who support the Palestinian cause, people should not to get carried away with the aesthetics of “statehood” in what would amount to a bantustan. Instead, I have argued, they should focus on the negative consequences for the right of return and the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The main purpose of the so-called two-state solution is not to restore Palestinian rights, but rather to preserve and recognize Israel’s so-called “right to exist as a Jewish state.”
After the Commons vote, Abunimah tweeted:
UK parliament has voted by large majority to #RecognisePalestine state "alongside" apartheid Israel. A vote for partition not for justice.
A logical conclusion.

Yet, for all its flaws, restrictions and inbuilt approval of Israel, there's still something to be gained from this token vote.

As much as it helps protect Israel as a Zionist entity, and maintains the power-serving notion of a 'two state peace process', the actual 'recognition' part also provides another major public relations boost for the Palestinian cause.

As the hostility of Israel and it's alarmed lobby showed, whatever the motion's limitations, this will be seen by much of the world as a defeat for Israel and another significant step towards justice for Palestine.    

As Jonathan Cook (via Facebook) notes:
Okay, it's only symbolic and it doesn't obligate the British government in any way (and I'm highly doubtful a Palestinian state can actually ever be viable on 22% of historic Palestine). But all that aside, the British parliament's overwhelming vote to recognise a Palestinian state is a tremendous victory for the Palestinian cause. The British created this mess with the Balfour Declaration, and this is one small sign that the British establishment and the west more generally are slowly waking up to this fact. Nonetheless, the large margin of victory – 274-12 – chiefly reflects the fact that MPs from the ruling Conservative Party mostly stayed away from the vote, in a reminder that when put to the test most of the political class, like their forebears nearly 100 years ago, will still prove to be a cowardly and treacherous bunch.[/i
Again, all good comment. None of which negates what Ali Abunimah and others argue. The point here is to take all such views and actions as worthy and collective endeavours for Palestinian advancement.

This 'recognition' certainly goes nowhere near imposing any of the real pressure on Israel - sanctions, divestment, diplomatic ostracism - needed to bring about a just and long-lasting solution; in essence, one that addresses the inalienable rights of all Palestinians to equality and self-determination.    

But support for the motion by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the thousands who urged their MPs to vote for it also shows that public mobilisation and street action is working.

The basic truth is that any power establishment always has to be fought on many fronts. And this is a huge establishment. Little incremental victories like this help bring the case for Palestinian justice into the greater public realm. It shames other politicians. It gives confidence to Palestinians and those supporting their case. And, despite the motion's protective caveat, it hurts Israel and its allies.

So long as we remain conscious of, as Abunimah reminds us, the still central issue of Palestinian rights, the wider solidarity movement can use this small win as another useful stepping stone in the strategic building of public awareness and exposing of Israel's political protectors.

Monday, 13 October 2014

'We are their hope'. Great resolve at Glasgow rally for Independence

An inspiring turnout, fine speeches and a resilient desire for the compassionate, independent society.

Yesterday's Hope Over Fear gathering in Glasgow's George Square heard wonderful, people-centred statements from actors Martin Compston, Keira Lucchesi and Paul Brannigan, Loaves and Fishes foodbank organiser Denis Curran, ex-UK ambassador Craig Murray, Unison's Brian Smith, activist Tommy Sheridan, disabled 'climber for Indy' Lindsay Jarrett, SNP councillor David Baird and multiple others across the grassroots Yes movement.

There was also a stirring array of musical sets from Dorec-a-belle, Indy Girls and many other Yes artistes. 

But for her beautiful defence of the poor, and passionate pursuit of a just independence, I'd like to highlight a particular articulation from the young Yes campaigner Mhairi Black.

Those atop the Glasgow tourist buses might have been transfixed by the sea of saltires - and the daring St Andrew-crossed spiderman up on Walter Scott's ugly monument. But, as Mhairi and the communal mood of those assembled helped confirm, the real expression here was not one of stone cold nationalism, but of warm humanity.     

And that's the real beauty of this rising Yes movement. It's engagingly inclusive and leftfield, infused with an overwhelming desire for progressive social change. Alongside Mhairi, almost every speaker prioritised this basic, burning demand for economic justice, real political rights and, with amplified voice, a resounding rejection of Labour's betrayal politics.

After all the pain of 19 September, we can take great encouragement from this vibrant Yes energy and the great new-generational voices for Indy.

For all those still crushed by that vote, particularly those facing another seemingly hopeless winter of ConDem austerity and Labourite abandonment, there's Mhairi Black's assuring words (taken from her mum) to hold on to: 'we are their hope'.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Indy rising - vowing assertiveness


A little re-shaping of the message and
what do do about the messenger
The term 'mission creep' just took on a double meaning in the twisted propaganda stakes.

While a pious US/UK, already responsible for historic mass murder and carnage in Iraq, executes its further messianic deliverance, their past exchequer of death Gordon Brown urges a petition for David Cameron to deliver those 'promised new powers' for Scotland.

If irony's long dead in war politics, chutzpah just expired laughing over the indy issue.

The SNP may make useful capital of Brown's grandstanding. But the Yes movement at large should not be diverted by Westminster's spurious 'vow' politics. It was a cynical bribe peddled in desperate panic. This is just the posturing continued. Why indulge that establishment narrative?

And don't forget how a compliant media helped elevate the late-cobbled 'vow' into 'The Vow'.

A vow is a solemn promise, most often made in the spirit of honouring a trust, securing a bond, affirming love. Why give this sordid gesture the same moral space?
Even if those 'powers' are ultimately granted they can never substitute for meaningful, transitional instruments, rights that need to be taken and used to pursue real forms of radical independence.

From the 'noble interventionist' selling of more bombing to the hyped Westminster package, we're forever courted by establishment 'solutions' and 'mediations'. And with perpetual war comes the relentless task of hegemonic persuasion, setting the parameters of debate, keeping the 'options' narrowly defined, holding the public in a state of fear and compliance. 

If these past days have been painful for Yes people, they should also be a time for useful reflection and sharper thinking beyond the sham 'devo debate', giving new impetus to define, construct and hold to our own more confident narratives, rather than remain stifled by theirs. We might even take a little vow of assertiveness on that.