Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Marie's Jukebox, 2

I promise I’ll get back to my political (and humorous) stuff in due course. Meanwhile here’s my next batch of Jukebox hits…

  1. Dean Martin – Sway
  2. UNO Choir – Anchored in the Lord
  3. Yuksek – Tonight (Radio Edit)
  4. Steve Cropper – Land of 1000 Dances
  5. The Cambridge Singers – The Sailor & Young Nancy, E J Moeran
  6. Groove Armada – Healing
  7. Jr Walker – Shotgun
  8. Kraftwerk – Aero Dynamik (Kling Klang Dynamix)
  9. Cliff Richard – Quizas, Quizas, Quizas
  10. LPO – Requiem Aeternam, W A Mozart
  11. Leonard Cohen – In My Secret Life
  12. Chet Baker – Time After Time
  13. Rosanne Cash – God is in the Roses
  14. Michael Flanders & Donald Swann – Song of the Weather
  15. Blondie – Hanging on the Telephone
  16. Funkadelic – One Nation Under a Groove
  17. Jackie Wilson – Higher and Higher
  18. Slim Gaillard & Slam Stewart – Opera in Vout
  19. Mandroid – Subsonic Tendencies

Just looking at the stuff that has come up on this shuffle, only one track is later than 2004. Must get myself up-time.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Marie's Jukebox, 1

I have decided that when I am in the mood for music I will set my player to shuffle and see what comes on. And then I thought why not share it with you. So here is my first jukebox playlist. I’m sticking to twenty tracks each time I post this. See if there is anything you don’t recognize from this list and go looking for it (iTunes, YouTube, wherever), or if there is a memory-jogger for you.

  1. Noel Harrison – Windmills Of Your Mind
  2. Simon Mayor – Jig, from St Paul’s Suite, Gustav Holst; arranged for mandolin.
  3. Charles Trenet – Douce France
  4. PIL – Public Image
  5. Edwin Starr – War
  6. Richard Lumsden – Spinners Loop, from “Morris, A Life with Bells On”.
  7. Santana – Jugando
  8. The Beatles – In My Life
  9. Bob Marley – Jamming
  10. Covenant – We Stand Alone (live)
  11. Devon Irons – Vampire
  12. Capercaillie – Soraidh Bhuam Gu Barraidh
  13. Los Lobos – Amselma
  14. Aerosmith & Run DMC – Walk This Way
  15. Dick Dale – Front Porch Blues
  16. Flogging Molly – The Worst Day Since Yesterday
  17. Nathan Abshire – Pine Grove Blues (Ma Negresse)
  18. Academy of Ancient Music, Catherine Bott & Christopher Hogwood – When I Am Laid In Earth, from “Dido and Aeneas”, Henry Purcell.
  19. Ian Dury & The Blockheads – Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll
  20. The Miracles – You Really Got A Hold On Me


Thursday, 25 November 2010

Where's Custer?

Yesterday Consuela (my Tejana maid) pointed to the blanket under which I was snuggling on my chaise longue. You may remember it. It depicts an incident after the Battle of the Little Big Horn in which Custer, having been captured alive, was bludgeoned to death by an old Cheyenne woman wielding an iron skillet.

“How can you be sure that’s what happened?” she asked.

I can’t, of course, but on the other hand Native American accounts of historical events are at last being listened to, particularly as they are seen to agree with modern battlefield archaeology.

The mythical, European-American stories, the so-called history of “Custer’s Last Stand”, or the “Battle of the Little Big Horn”, are falling down all around us. The Hollywood Custer – the image of Errol Flynn, sabre in hand, doggedly defending the cavalry flag and the last man to fall, even Arthur Penn’s gibbering, delusional figure from Little Big Man – is beginning to fray. Even the name of the event is under question. The “Last Stand”, always a one-sided concept, has not seemed credible for some time. Now the term “Battle” looks shaky. The event, in Lakota and Cheyenne records, doesn’t seem to be important, not as important as, say, the Battle of Rosebud Creek even though that battle was not decisive, not as important as the domestic affairs of the ad hoc confederation of tribes. When you consider that it amounted to a foolish incursion by less than two hundred soldiers (the approximate size of Custer’s detachment once troops under Reno and Benteen had separated from them) towards a sizeable native encampment, and that the defenders dealt with the incursion in “as long as it takes a hungry man to eat his dinner” (according to a Native American description) it is hardly surprising that the event is not given much prominence.

The famed 7th Cavalry were not the elite of the army. The minimum recruiting age was 21, but many recruits were much younger – presumably either they lied about their age or a blind eye was turned. The amount of time spent on horseback brought about damage to the troopers’ spines which must have been permanently agonizing. Skulls found at the scene of the fighting had bad teeth, presumably from army diet. Life in the 7th Cavalry, stationed in remote forts must have been dreadful. There is no record, as far as I know, of the names of the troopers who rode with and died with Custer. The only positive identification from the battlefield was made by reference to the dimensions of a skull, an image of which was superimposed upon a photograph of a renowned scout, Mitch Bouyer. Bouyer was the son of a French Canadian man and a Santee Lakota woman, and was one of the most expert scouts ever to work for the cavalry. To my mind even Custer himself was not definitely identified, although the spot where he is supposed to have been found is marked.

Having poked a stick into a hornets’ nest, Custer’s contingent of cavalry had taken up the best defensive positions it could on three linked rises. Initially the dismounted troopers on each position formed skirmish lines, each man a few metres away from the next, and fired down with their standard single-shot rifles. These rifles would have had the advantage at first, having a greater range than the arms carried by their enemies. The attackers were not armed with bows and tomahawks but with a variety of repeating firearms, which meant that when they got within range, by moving from cover to cover while the troopers were reloading, they had vastly superior firepower. The skirmish lines broke and the herding instinct took over – the troopers huddled together, becoming in fact an easier target, and only a handful could have made it to the next piece of high ground as theirs was overrun. Eventually a number of troopers ran from the last position towards a ravine, either as a diversionary tactic or in a panic retreat. The last high spot having been over-run, these fleeing soldiers were cut down before they reached the ravine. It was there that Mitch Bouyer’s remains were found.

Mitch Bouyer, posing for the camera!

All the cavalrymen’s and scouts’ bodies were mutilated, a typical post-mortem punishment amongst some Plains peoples designed to curse their enemies’ time in the after-life. It is said that Custer’s body was found, naked but relatively untouched, and speculation ran that the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors left him unmutilated out of respect for a brave commander. However I don’t buy that for several reasons. Firstly there is no proof that they could have recognized him. Secondly he had no reputation amongst the Lakota and Cheyenne, having not been engaged in any significant actions against them. Thirdly, he was probably not the only officer in the contingent to be wearing buckskins. The nakedness I can credit, as the buckskins would have been worth taking away. I honestly doubt that there would have been a single unmutilated body; I think that Custer’s body wasn’t “found” any more than anyone else’s, it was simply that it was expedient for the myth if the place where he fell could be “identified” for the purpose of putting up a marker, and it had to be on the last height to be overrun.

There were no white observers of the scene. The only accounts of the action are those of native witnesses, and as I said the event was probably seen as no big deal by them. These days experts give most credence to the claim that a warrior by the name of White Cow Bull killed Custer. But then, what of the story of the enraged Cheyenne woman? I like that story, but if there were no cavalry survivors it falls; if Custer was unknown to the Lakota and Cheyenne, it falls.

Why is this all so important to me? It is important because it draws attention to the fact that European minds, so immersed in the tradition of documented “fact”, have found it not only difficult to accept oral, handed-down histories, but actually easy to dismiss them. This assumption of superiority has dogged our consideration of history. Granted things can change in oral history – its greatest drawback is that it can be corrupted by “Chinese Whispers” – but it is never the product of an inferior; it is always another window upon historical truth, and a valid window too from which we can gaze out at a different perspective to the one we are used to. Meanwhile, the Western way of considering history is not in itself perfect; facts are lost, historical records are lost, those that remain are subject to individual interpretation, history is seen through a cultural filter. On the 8th of October this year, British historian David Starkey (speaking on BBC Radio's "Any Questions" programme) said words to the effect that History should be based solely on facts. Good luck with that.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

No Borders, No Bosses. Part 2.

I pledge allegiance to no flag and to no country but, as a citizen of the world, to common humanity and to the liberty which is the right and heritage of all.

No Borders:

If I were to make a pledge, then it would be something like the words above. But having made it once, I could not repeat it every day. If I did, it would have become a creed and an institution, I would be shackled to it in the dead letter, I would cease to live in the spirit of it – and I want to live in the spirit of it.

The smallest functioning, autonomous, political unit current in the world is the nation-state. Forget the States of the USA, the Cantons of Switzerland, the Départements of France, the Local Authorities of Great Britain; disregard all the districts, oblasts, townships, “communes”, wards, and parishes worldwide – like it or not, the nation-state is the entity below which political powers will not divide themselves. National power is the ambition of democratic political parties and autocrats alike. Even separatists who campaign for independence for their ethnic or cultural enclave have an eye to making it into a nation-state and to “taking their place” with other nations. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, each former member declared itself a sovereign state, and the race for internal power was furious. When Yugoslavia began to tear itself apart, each constituent "republic" declared itself an ethnocentric nation-state. When the IRA waged a terrorist campaign against the United Kingdom it was with a view to including Ulster in the nation-state of the Republic of Ireland. The only solution proposed in the middle east, short of one side annihilating the other, is in terms of recognising national status for each side. Nation-states may be as small as Monaco or Liechtenstein, or as populous as the People’s Republic of China, or as vast as Russia, but the principle does not seem to vary – the nation-state is the lowest unit of ambition to the professional political class.

Notwithstanding devolution, notwithstanding the supposed “checks and balances” and States’ rights of the US system, the national assemblies in Cardiff and Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, to give two examples, the drive to dominate a nation-state is there in every political organization.

Neither is there any coherent drive towards effective international federacy, co-operation, or super-statism. The looseness of the United Nations, with the power of veto given to the handful of nation-states with the most perceived status (or sometimes muscle), means that many other nation-states routinely defy it. Israel does continuously, without serious opposition; Ba’athist Iraq did so, mainly as a sheer but unsuccessful bluff, until invaded by the armies of other nation-states acting with only dubious and contentious reference to the UN’s rulings; other nation-states – usually little ones with no oil and no strategic importance – have done so without any significant disturbance. The lawgiving centralism of the European Community constantly brings it into conflict with the national interest and sovereignty of constituent nation-states. The Commonwealth is now of little significance beyond sporting ties.

The nation-state is possessive, fearful, bellicose, jealous, vainglorious, selfish, and assured of its supposed superiority over its neighbours. It embodies character traits that one would discourage in one’s child or one’s sister. The nation-state sends it young men and women to war, and does so behind its national icons and idols, against the young men and women of another nation-state.

The nation-state often claims to be the protector of the individual rights and freedoms of its citizens. In fact the nation-state subsumes those rights and freedoms, demands allegiance, demands quiescence, fosters a level of national sentiment (or rather national sentimentality). Even in nation-states pretending democracy the sum of the citizen’s participation is to sign his or her autonomy away by marking an X on a piece of paper once every four or five years, and gifting all decision-making to the professional political class.
H L Menken

“But surely,” says the political class (the same political class that routinely praises the intelligence of the electorate in being able to make up its minds who to vote for!), “the average person in the street does not have the necessary skills to govern himself? Let us take on the awful burden of making decisions for him, thereby liberating him from care.” And in so saying, and so doing, the political class goes on to prove the cynical quip of H L Menken – “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” It is the theory that there is a majority of wise men over fools, or rather the pretence, because it is in the interests of the political class that the rest of us can be fooled into voting for them and into perpetuating the system where they can not only aspire to political power but can achieve and maintain it. When Abraham Lincoln said, “You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”, he neglected the fact that all a politician has to do is to fool enough of the people enough of the time. At least within bourgeois democracy that is enough!
Abraham Lincoln

But I would say that even the most foolish citizen has some recognisable and reliable level of knowledge about what concerns him or her most closely. The more remote the decision-making has to be by dint of the smallest functioning, autonomous, political unit’s being the nation-state, then the more that the citizen can be excluded by the political class from the process of decision-making. It is so easy for that citizen to become convinced by the argument that he or she hasn’t the necessary skills to govern himself or herself, so easy to persuade each citizen simply to be quiescent, to watch the pretty images on TV and drink the cheap lager from the supermarket, so easy to become complacent and apathetic. Panem et circenses!

So what to put in the place of the nation-state, and who has the right to change things? It seems to me that asking the ordinary citizen to become more directly involved in grass-roots, ground-up, non-party-dominated politics is a way of educating the ordinary citizen towards the skills which the political class insists we don’t have. So let us look for the smallest communal unit that we can find, whether it be a village, a factory, or whatever – what it is will depend on circumstances – and make that our smallest functioning, autonomous, political unit, without need for any larger unit. Let those units exist not to compete, but to co-operate with each other1, to obey the evolutionary principle of mutual aid, recognizing as they do that that mutuality can’t be limited by the traditional borders of nation-states, that pressures and priorities may be exactly the same in Coldstream and Cornhill-on-Tweed, or in Les Moëres and Houtem, or in Coutts and Sweetgrass. The answer is go small! The right to do this rests with the ordinary citizen, whom the political class has effectively disenfranchised whilst leaving the illusion that his or her X actually means something more than the perpetuation of that class’s hold on political power.

In Britain today we have a situation where electoral participation in general election voting is still 20% lower than its post-WW2 peak, and at 65% is not a great deal higher than its trough of 60% in 2001. Also notwithstanding the unpopularity of the immediately previous administration (New Labour), the most readily-electable alternative (the Conservative Party) failed to gain an overall majority and had to form a coalition with the third-place party (Liberal Democrat). This coalition has embarked on a programme of cuts to state spending coupled with consumer tax rises (VAT will rise from 17.5% to 20% in the New Year), meanwhile favouring big business with a cut in Corporation Tax to a record low level2. There is a lot of public disquiet and dissent both low key and more recently high key with street protests by students about probable rises in the cost of university education. Now my purpose here is not to argue the rights and wrongs of the various actions of the parties of the political class, nor the rights or wrongs of any particular street protests.

The ideal is to break the hold of this system. It cannot be done by asking the perpetuators of the system to reform it. They will never reform it because they will never reform themselves, will never cut away from themselves the very thing that enables them to maintain power. They as a class are not afraid of the people they govern. It can only be done from down here, by exercising democracy at the smallest practicable level. I can suggest two things. The first is to get involved in any existing, democratically-run (or potentially democratically-run) body outside of government. For example a trade union. You may have to take on the power-structure within that body, but you can do so by working to increase grass-roots participation in that body. The second is to abstain from the voting process for the national parliament or congress. Now, it has been put to me that withholding one’s vote in a national election merely hands political power to one or the other of a couple of parties. Whilst I can see that argument, I would say that there is a level of electoral participation below which even a “victorious” party has to acknowledge that the nation is ungovernable under their system.

Combining these two actions ought, I feel, to bring about a new way of doing things out of necessity. A participatory democracy working from the ground up, similar to the late Murray Bookchin’s “Libertarian Municipalism”, ought to evolve.

Emma Goldman
 There is a big caveat. It would be necessary to move on from using existing organizations and bodies to forming new communities to run things. There will be no legal framework for doing so, it would be a direct challenge to the power structure that already exists. Those who clung on to power would declare it to be illegal and would fight it. As Emma Goldman said, “Every great idea is against the law.” This is where the hard work would come in, and to quote Thomas Jefferson, “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed”. This is the point where dissent finds itself transformed to revolution (in all senses of the word) and in the face of reaction from the powers-that-be has three choices: surrender, passive resistance, or active resistance. Dissenters would have to choose, and it would be a difficult choice.
Thomas Jefferson

Let us suppose that it did become possible to have local, communitarian, ground-upward democracy; how would the autonomous communities interact? Of necessity and for the survival of all, it would have to be with mutuality and cooperation, each community helping its immediate neighbours. Also to an overwhelming extent it would have to be with disregard for pre-existing “national” boundaries, as the next-door-neighbour cooperation formed a network. Any decisions affecting more than one community would have to be the subject of specific conventions. These conventions would be set up for a specific purpose, would last as long as the issue was live, and would then be disbanded. They would not be set up to govern the communities but to serve their interests.

I know this sounds over-simple, but I am a blogger and this is only a blog. I would write a book, but for the fact that I am sure that what I am summarizing here has been already stated at length by others. You will be able to find something of this in many works by secular and religious communitarians, by revolutionary and pacifist anarchists, by political philosophers such as Bookchin and Alex Knight; there are hints and more than hints of it in the writings of such diverse people as Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson, and even in the original concepts of the constitutions which formed the basis of (yes!) some nation-states. Read Kropotkin if you will, read Alexander Berkman if you will.

Instantly to your mind might questions about how important aspects of infrastructure might be handled. How would the railways run? How would the mail be delivered? How would hospitals function? How would justice be administered? Certainly having gone through the birth pangs of constructing a new society its citizens would have their work cut out for them – there would be no need to encourage democratic participation, because it would be an absolute necessity, a continuing experiment! It would be hard work from the word go. I certainly don’t have all the answers to hand, so for now let’s leave these questions to one side…

To be continued.


1  The familiar (and to my mind unthinking) objection from the Right will be that this simply isn’t in “human nature”, that we are by that nature competitive and not cooperative, according to the “survival of the fittest” rule in Darwinism. That is a view of almost unbelievable narrowness and naivety which comes from a misinterpretation of 19c philosopher Herbert Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest” to mean that only the toughest, fastest, strongest survive, taking “fit” to mean nothing more than a bodily condition. But if dog eats dog to survive, then the last two dogs will fight each other to the extinction of the canine race. The word “fittest” means “most suited”, and this can mean, and in fact should mean more often than it means the most ruggedly individualistic, the most communal, the most cooperative. Humankind is a societal species, a species that has often, in its neglected and unwritten histories (those which do not only record “Great Men”), has relied on mutual aid for its survival. It will need to rely on this again, and soon, and will need to muzzle the dog-eating dogs in its midst. I can recommend a book into which I have only dipped in the past. If you can find an English translation, then read Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution by Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin from the introduction to which I quote:

Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. One of them was the extreme severity of the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature; the enormous destruction of life which periodically results from natural agencies; and the consequent paucity of life over the vast territory which fell under my observation. And the other was, that even in those few spots where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find -- although I was eagerly looking for it -- that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution…

Wherever I saw animal life in abundance, as, for instance, on the lakes where scores of species and millions of individuals came together to rear their progeny; in the colonies of rodents; in the migrations of birds which took place at that time on a truly American scale along the Usuri; and especially in a migration of fallow-deer which I witnessed on the Amur, and during which scores of thousands of these intelligent animals came together from an immense territory, flying before the coming deep snow, in order to cross the Amur where it is narrowest -- in all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.

And finally, I saw among the semi-wild cattle and horses in Transbaikalia, among the wild ruminants everywhere, the squirrels, and so on, that when animals have to struggle against scarcity of food, in consequence of one of the above-mentioned causes, the whole of that portion of the species which is affected by the calamity, comes out of the ordeal so much impoverished in vigour and health, that no progressive evolution of the species can be based upon such periods of keen competition.”

Consequently, when my attention was drawn, later on, to the relations between Darwinism and Sociology, I could agree with none of the works and pamphlets that had been written upon this important subject. They all endeavoured to prove that Man, owing to his higher intelligence and knowledge, may mitigate the harshness of the struggle for life between men; but they all recognized at the same time that the struggle for the means of existence, of every animal against all its congeners, and of every man against all other men, was ‘a law of Nature’. This view, however, I could not accept, because I was persuaded that to admit a pitiless inner war for life within each species, and to see in that war a condition of progress, was to admit something which not only had not yet been proved, but also lacked confirmation from direct observation.”
Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin

2  To be fair, the lowest rate of 20% will be applied to the smallest limited companies.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Words wot I have invented, 1

I was about to claim the word "squamped", but I notice that there is a precedent in an urban dictionary for the word "squamp" signifying a violent (ahem) breaking of bodily wind, so forget that one. I shall only mention words which I can't find on the web.

Here's today's: Polemophonic - adj. having to do with the sound of warfare. Polemophonics - n. study or science of the sounds of warfare.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The 10 best mass protests

The Observer's veteran foreign correspondent Ed Vulliamy chooses history's most significant public demonstrations.

[Because newspaper articles are not necessarily archived, I have reproduced in full a collection of comments and images assembled by Ed Vulliamy here on my blog. I have credited any images where the photographer was still alive within the last fifty years, and will remove them if I receive any objection to their being in my petty blog; but I regard any images where the artist or photographer has been deceased for more than fifty years as being legally in the public domain. Although I agree in broad terms with Ed Vulliamy’s views as expressed here, there are minor details on which I would take issue; however I present his views without comment from me. MM]

March on Washington 17 April 1965
There were many epic protests against the Vietnam war that inspired my generation but this photograph of a demonstrator placing a flower in the barrel of a National Guardsman’s gun – a single, small but defiant act of protest – was both of the time and, eternally, an assertion for peace against war. The moment gathered further cogency in May 1970 after the killing of four students at Kent State University in Ohio in a similar protest. It emerged that one of the dead, Allison Krause, had also placed a flower in a gun the previous day. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

The Three Glorious Days, Paris July 1830
The 1830 revolution in Paris, which overthrew the Bourbon monarchy, gave birth to the modern uprising. It was inspired by philosophical romanticism as well as political ends (the crowds ransacked the Hôtel de Ville, but guarded the Louvre). As a teenager, I was captivated by Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (above) and loved the fact that composer Hector Berlioz was involved. The revolution’s outcome illustrated the tireless pursuit of rebellion: overthrowing one monarch, only to restore another who would also be overthrown

Chartist general strike 1842 and UK miners’ strike 1984-5
The bookends of the movement for fair employment and the right to work in Britain. The workers’ movement was born in earnest with the Chartist strike – the largest industrial action in the world in the 19th century, with half-a-million workers withdrawing their labour or taking over their factories. The miners’ strike was the last prolonged struggle to preserve not only the right of organisation at work but Britain’s manufacturing base against the looting of national assets. The workers lost, the looters won: the results are plain to see in our post-industrial wastelands

Soweto school strike and uprising 1976
The walkout by pupils at Orlando West Junior School in Soweto on 30 April 1976 in protest at being taught in Afrikaans was the fuse of the movement that came to be led by Nelson Mandela and which overthrew apartheid in South Africa. By June, Soweto was in revolt and some 600 people had been killed by the police and army. But the uprising established the jailed Mandela’s ANC as a guiding force for liberation and was immediately heeded in Britain. That summer, youths chanted “Soweto Soweto” as they were charged by police at Notting Hill carnival. Photograph, AP

Prague Spring and uprising 1968
Many Czechs recall the events of 1968 with bitterness as a defeat by the Soviet tanks, and of the uprising’s reformist leader, Alexander Dubcek. But, coming as one in a wave of protests that great year of global insurrection, the demonstration was a howl for liberty – both raw and sophisticated – by the people against the forces of Moscow. For me, it was the political awakening. Prague told us that a tank was a tank, whatever colours it wore, and that our movement was the colour of liberty against whomsoever it pitched itself, communist or capitalist. Photograph: Libor Hajsky/AP

Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby 4 June 1913
How can a protest be among the “best” if a brave woman dies? Because it was a watershed for the movement for votes for women. Davison did not, apparently, intend to die when she threw herself under King George V’s horse on Derby day, 4 June 1913. The jockey, Herbert Jones, was “haunted by that woman’s face” – and so was 20th-century Britain. My late father, whose mother had been a suffragette, saw the Greenham Common protest against cruise missiles in the 1980s as a direct descendant of their pacifist policies. We took them cases of good wine, which were most welcome.

Kronstadt commune, Petrograd 1921
Four years after the Russian revolution, the Soviet Communist party cracked down on a series of strikes against it in what is now St Petersburg. In response, sailors of the Kronstadt garrison, aboard the ships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol, drew up a list of democratic demands that encapsulated the spirit, and continuation, of the revolution. When it was rejected, the sailors formed a “provisional revolutionary committee” and set up a commune. In response, the Red Army was sent in, brutally over-running Kronstadt. This revolution against a revolution has long divided the left.

People’s democracy at Burntollet Bridge 1969
Protesters on the student wing of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association sang “We Shall Overcome” as they marched from Belfast to Derry in January 1969, demanding an end to discrimination against Catholics and basic democratic voting rights. At Burntollet Bridge, they were attacked by a mob of Orangemen, encouraged by the sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary. The ensuing war was not fought by the IRA for equality within the UK – it was too late for that, a chance squandered by loyalist bigots to write a very different, less violent history for both countries. Photograph: Unknown

Anti-war protests worldwide 15 February 2003
The day when tens of millions of people across the planet came together to say “no” to the war in Iraq. The protests were overridden by warmongers – Bush, Blair and their cronies – but the protests are, sadly, vindicated by every day of bloody news from the ruins of that beautiful but ravaged, lost country. I walked through New York on 15 February, my children and my partner marched in London, friends marched in Sydney and Mexico. I was among those who tried to report the folly and the lie of WMD from within the US intelligence community itself, as well as protest – but also in vain. Photo: Dan Chung.

Athens Polytechnic occupation 2008-9
These have, until now, been times of acquiescence, apathy and the triumph of greed, belligerent hyper-materialism and fatuity. But in Athens, young people and trade unionists mounted a grand refusal of all these hegemonies. When I covered the polytechnic occupation and riots that followed the shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, I was astonished by the intelligence of the rebels in their endless candlelit discourse. Their uprising was also against the virtual culture of blogging instead of doing. One told me: “We are an assertion of the real thing against virtuality”. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

[Having said I wouldn’t comment, as a blogger I find myself chastened by that last quotation. A correction from an anonymous source might be noted in the case of the first photo: “The photograph of a blond young man placing a carnation in the barrel of a national guardsman's gun actually was taken during a protest against the Vietnam War on Oct. 21, 1967 (not on April 17, 1965, as indicated in the Guardian caption). The protester has been identified as George Harris, aka Hibiscus, who not long thereafter founded the legendary San Francisco queer performance troupe The Cockettes.” Readers of my blog may well have many other events which they would add to Ed Vulliamy’s list – people who commented on the original article certainly did. MM]

Sunday, 7 November 2010

No Borders, No Bosses. Part 1.

This is the first part of a brief essay. As always, it’s not a scholarly effort, just my own musings. I’m planning sections on Dissent, No Borders, No Bosses, and then perhaps a general conclusion.


Dissent is not an infantile disorder. Dissent is not a continuation into adulthood of adolescent hormones. Dissent, in its purest and most revolutionary form, is a breaking in, or indeed a breaking out from within, of moral, philosophical, rational, or spiritual light and a refusal to be bound by the corresponding darkness, no matter how framed in respectable tradition that darkness is, no matter how cherished that darkness is, no matter how much those who walk in that darkness have come to consider it light. Dissent comes from vigilance, from a refusal to be complacent, from constant critical review. Dissent manifests itself in all areas of human activity, endeavour, and concern – there is dissent in art, in science, in politics, in matters of faith, in every aspect of how we view the world and our place in it.

Dissenters put themselves at risk. Entrenched and traditional views, practices, and structures have great accrued strength, and often dissenters throw themselves at the rockface of tradition to little avail. This in itself is no proof of the virtue of tradition but rather of its obstinacy, and thus dissenters can be portrayed as brave and honourable failures because, yes, there are more failures than success stories in the history of dissent. Some dissenters even become martyrs. Dissent is diverse, and dissenters may themselves be as diverse as Gautama Siddhartha, Spartacus, Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther, Gerard Winstanley, George Fox, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Paul Cézanne, Emmeline Pankhurst, Mohandas K Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the full list of dissenters will contain many controversial names; but always dissent is radical, visionary, and revolutionary, if not in its obvious form then in its implications1.

Ironically success has been one of dissent’s greatest areas of failure. The two great revolutions of history – the American and Russian – were each the result of dissent, and in each case were the foundation of profoundly conservative institutions and structures. To my mind this means that both failed, and failed spectacularly, and the fact that one of these structures has “survived” has, to my mind, absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it is a failure. It has always proved to be thus when the mistargeted object of dissent is to replace the power of tradition with an alternative power. Just look at the following largely political examples. The Reformation replaced Catholic hegemonies with Protestant ones; the English Civil War briefly replaced an absolute monarchy with a Parliamentary hegemony and then a military dictatorship; the French Revolution sought to replace an absolute monarchy with a republic, and became a state under the Imperial power of one man2; America sought to break remote rule by the Crown and to create an ideal system of government, and ended up lumbering itself with a Constitution that effectively stifles reform; the Bolsheviks in Russia had, as a deliberate and prominent part of their policy, the seizure of state power, and having seized it failed to realise that that was a problem in its own right; Iran threw out a decadent Shah and replaced him with a mediaevalist theocracy; the list seems to be endless!

I do not, by the way, seek to limit the definition of dissent to the perceived political “Left”. The list above of “failures” contains a fairly diverse ideological spread – ideological, not merely political. However I do have severe reservations about the nature of dissent from the “Right”, inasmuch as it seems to be, more often than not, a reactionary phenomenon; it may in certain respects appear to have laudable ideals, it may in certain respects appear to protect certain valuable privileges (which it will claim as freedoms), but more often than not its idealism will be rooted in the past, will be seeking a retreat, will have in its ideology more than a hint of “golden-ageism”. The Tea Party in the USA, taking its name from one of its country’s national myths, appears to have its idealism rooted in a Norman Rockwell painting; The Nazis in Germany appeared to have theirs rooted in a quasi-Wagnerian Urwelt; and no, I am not equating the two movements, merely giving my impression of a common aspect of Right-dissent. I believe that such a characteristic does serve to weaken the concept of dissent from the political Right; readers must therefore forgive me if, having acknowledged it, I pass on and, for the purposes of this essay, focus away from it.

Nor do I wish to categorise those that remain, once I have dismissed the Right, as being necessarily of what is traditionally viewed as the “Left”. Tradition, after all, is the antithesis of dissent, and amongst the “Left” are many voices and forces which are traditionalist and conservative in outlook. Again nor do I wish to imply that old ideas are useless because of their age per se. Many movements of radical dissent have failed without fully realising the potential of their principles – these same “old ideas” – and much of that failure was not because of the weakness of those principles (often it was due to the force majeure of tradition and vested interest). Always the words of Samuel Beckett sound in our ears: “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” You never know, one day you might just succeed, if your principles are sound and your courage is strong. Whilst adherence to the failed manifestations of old ideas – to Marxism in its Bolshevist, oligarchic form, to Christianity in its institutional form, to give only two examples – has little worth, that does not mean that we should toss away as irrelevant due to age of the teachings of Marx, Christ, Socrates, Buddha et al. They have much to teach us – not least of all the things which their disciples from following generations have ignored or forgotten! The sane, humane, and rational utilitarianism of “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs3, the compassion of “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them”, the wisdom of “The unexamined life is not worth living” or ofYou will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger” – these and more still have the ring of truth about them, and all spring from somewhere outside the then- and now-accepted norms of society.

I sense a question in the minds of some readers. You have become aware that my concept of dissent, though it might be diverse in foundation, is one of total dissent, revolutionary dissent, the kind of dissent that seeks or hopes to overturn existing “order” in favour of a better. What of dissent in its function simply as the “conscience” of society, rather than its implacable overturner? Yes, dissent often fills this role almost by default. This is never more obvious than when dissent takes the form of single-issue campaigning. A single issue is, it must be admitted, something around which a larger number of diverse folk can unite and can campaign prominently to the extent that they are heard, some notice is taken, some measures taken, and some success claimed. However it always takes place within the confines of an existing structure, seeking piecemeal reform of that structure and not necessarily questioning that structure critically as a whole4. A system or structure can sometimes absorb or embrace changes, turning them to its own advantage. For example capitalism, initially resistant to the entirely justifiable pressure for equal employment opportunities and pay for women (at a time when, by tradition, women were employed by-and-large in a few specific areas only, and for low wages or “pin money” to use the dismissive term of the time), embraced the concept as soon as it became clear that there would be an overall increase in available labour, and hence a fall in its market value.

Advocates of dissent as no more than society’s conscience must bear this in mind, and must realise that it is often a dangerous path to follow. Maximilien Robespierre, a dissident but also the man of whom it could have truly been said that if you give the most ardent revolutionary absolute power he will become a tyrant, criticised political moderates to the effect that they want “a revolution without a revolution”, meaning that they want to see change without disturbance to the comfort of their lives. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Rome admonishing them that all temporal power is ordained by God and they should be subject to these powers, he would have known the implication of that subjection; there would have been no way a first century Christian would have felt obliged to obey any law which contradicted the teaching of Christ, but equally no way that Christian would have run away from the consequences. Christian tradition5 has the Apostle Peter being crucified and Paul beheaded. This is chastening. The accepted danger in this philosophy lies of course in a system’s response to dissent, in its embracing (as exemplified in the previous paragraph) or resisting.

A system’s answer to dissent can take a number of forms, from outright repression to subtle marginalisation, depending on the characteristics of the system. A totalitarian system will be more likely to resort to repression; a system which relies for its survival on the belief amongst its population in individual freedom cannot, for obvious reasons, resort immediately to overt repression (though there are instances in history where a state has become totalitarian almost over night, so there is nothing to be gained by complacency). There are other tactics which can be employed and are employed often, both reactive and proactive. As an obvious example the prevailing system/power always has access to mass media; the politically already-powerful set much of the news agenda and can guarantee themselves headline coverage by even the most apparently-independent newspaper or broadcaster. In a free-market system where dissent may be expected to be critical of capitalism, the media will be overwhelmingly in private hands and will have a vested interest in combating dissent from the “Left”, and so manipulation of fact and of the interpretation of fact may be expected. In all systems the law may be invoked, and may be used fairly or unfairly. As an example of a proactive step, dissident groups may be infiltrated, spied upon, subverted, and their actions anticipated or forestalled by the covert agencies of a state (to answer anyone who might accuse me of being a “conspiracy theorist”, if the covert agencies of our own countries do not do this, then they are not doing the job they are paid for!), or a deliberate culture of patriotism may be fostered – daily pledges given to a flag by schoolchildren, a series of national or ethnic myths may be encouraged by linguistic and visual iconography, love of a “dear leader” may be invoked, and so on.

To be continued…


1 That is not to say that a reactionary type of dissent does not also exist. It does, and a prominent modern manifestation of that is the Tea Party movement in the USA. To some readers of my blog this may seem like a recurring (and easy) target of mine; however, I only mention the Tea Party because of its prominence, and given that it seeks to be prominent and to promote its views by that prominence, it can have no complaint if I pay attention to it. Thomas Jefferson said: “A government afraid of its citizens is a Democracy. Citizens afraid of government is a tyranny”. To my mind, a state or a system where each is afraid of the other is simply dysfunctional – and that’s probably the whole point of this article! Anyhow, suffice it to say that I do not regard reactionary dissent as true dissent, because it seeks to reinforce or to retreat into tradition rather than to challenge it. The fact that it is populist or that it can mobilise vociferous support does not make it revolutionary, or radical, or visionary; its targets are often imaginary or illusory at worst, or simply derived from a half- or badly-formed analysis of a situation at best.

2 I like to put it this way: it took Rome about two thousand years to go from the expulsion of the Tarquins to the sack of Constantinople, whereas a similar process took place in France over the adult lifetime of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte!

3 Famously a quotation from Karl Marx, but also attributed to Mikhail Bakunin.

4 Critical review does not necessarily have to come to the conclusion that a whole structure must be swept away; however, in my mind, there is no reasonable excuse for not keeping a whole structure under critical review. To think and act otherwise is complacent and lazy.

5 It would have to be, if only because I’m dealing with dissent!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The law of diminishing representation

This isn’t my own notion, but as far as I know the friend of mine who explained it to me has never written it down anywhere, doesn’t mind my re-telling it, and doesn’t want a personal acknowledgement, so here goes.

It’s something he came up with on the spur of the moment during a short trip to the Soviet Union in 1987. This was during the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, the first Soviet leader to have been born after the October Revolution. The Soviet Union still had the appearance of strength, Leninist iconography was still to be found everywhere and even talk of glasnost – perestroika – demokratia could not disguise the fact that the USSR was still a one-party state. Four years later, of course, the tightrope that Gorbachev had been walking snapped; nationalist agitation amongst the ethnic minorities of the Soviet Union reached a peak, there was an abortive Stalinist coup in Moscow (mainly amongst men promoted by Gorbachev himself), a break-up of the Soviet Union, and the eventual rise of the opportunist Boris Yeltsin.

Back in 1987 my friend was sitting in a dacha outside Kiev chatting about politics with a group of Russian and Ukrainian men. No doubt their party credentials were good, but the political discussion seemed to be open and free. Someone mentioned Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister at the time, and my friend commented on how unpopular she was at home. Of course that led to the question of how come she could enjoy elective power if she was unpopular. My friend, who was sitting by the longer edge of a rectangular table, put a finger at each end and moved his right hand inward as he explained every point of the following:

Imagine the population of a country. There will be a certain percentage of people in that population who are not entitled to vote – they may be under the legal voting age, or serving prison sentences, or detained under mental health legislation, or may simply be unaware of the registration process – but we will give this portion of the population a generously low value of 10%. Then let us imagine a general election; a large part of the population simply do not vote, for one reason or another. Again let’s be generous and say that 50% of those eligible do vote. In the United Kingdom one votes for one’s Member of Parliament in a local constituency. On the voting paper there will be at least three candidates, representing the Conservative Party, the Labour Party (one of those two will be most likely to form a government), the Liberal Democrats (who will gain quite a number of seats but will be most likely to end up in third place); also on the voting paper may well be candidates representing other parties, some of which (such as the Scottish National Party, Sinn Fein, and Plaid Cymru) may have significant local support and may even win seats, others of which (such as the British National Party, UKIP, or the Green Party1) may have sufficient support to have an arithmetical effect on the local result. Constituency elections are decided on a “first past the post” basis, so a winning candidate does not have to win an outright majority, merely a plurality of the votes. Again being generous, and ignoring spoilt and invalid voting papers, let’s assume 50% of the votes cast go to candidates from the party of which, say, Mrs Thatcher is the leader at the time. If you do the maths you will see that we are already down to 22.5% of the population.

But it doesn’t stop there. Can we assume that all of that 22.5% is in total agreement with the election manifesto of the party which takes control of government? Surely there will be a number of voters who had to think hard, or who decided to settle for one party or the other on a couple of issues, or on the basis of overall political philosophy rather than issues, or out of simple party loyalty and lifetime voting habits, or even simply because they didn’t like the alternative and used their votes to keep someone else out. That 22.5% is being whittled away. There will of course be a core who have actually read the manifesto from end to end with complete attention, and agree with it wholeheartedly, but they will be few in number – about the size of an average Politburo maybe, certainly they will by and large be party activists2.

Then there may be others who, although they were to some degree sure at the time they voted, regretted their choice later. I suggest that amongst those might be someone who lost his or her job due to government policy. During the 1979 general election campaign there was a famous Conservative Party poster, designed by Saatchi and Saatchi. It bore the slogan “Labour isn’t working”, showed what purported to be a long queue of people waiting at an unemployment office (it later came to light that the line of people had been largely made up of volunteers from the Young Conservatives), and was supposed to highlight the level of unemployment under the then-current Labour government. It stood at about one-and-a-half million... 

The poster was reckoned to be a great success, so much so that a later campaign in 2009 carried the slogan “Labour still isn’t working”. However, shortly after coming to power, Mrs Thatcher’s anti-inflationary and anti-Trade-Union policies led to unemployment figures of more than three million (in fact it was cogently argued that she had used deliberate unemployment as a counter-inflationary device), and I dare say that amongst the extra unemployed may well have been people who regretted voting for her.

Anyhow, that is what my friend meant by his coining – The law of diminishing representation – and by the time he had finished explaining it to his Soviet hosts he was leaning to the left hand edge of the table with his hands quite close together.

Incidentally, there is one thing about (British) politicians in power, of whatever party, that annoys me intensely. That is that they claim to have a “mandate” from the electorate to carry out their policies. Apart from the fact that this law of diminishing representation ought to humble the pride of any governing politician, the House of Commons is a representative body; a mandate can only be given to a delegate body. By definition no one in Westminster can have any “mandate”, and to claim one is to lie.


1 The Green Party actually won a seat in the 2010 elections. Caroline Lucas was returned as the Member of Parliament for Brighton, becoming the UK’s first Green Party MP.

2 Actual membership of the Conservative Party stands at approximately just under 0.5% of the population. Currently the Prime Minister of the UK is David Cameron MP, leader of the Conservative Party; although the party does not have an overall majority in the House of Commons, it has formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who came third in the general election. The Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg MP is now Deputy Prime Minister. The Liberal Democrats’ membership stands at around 0.1% of the population. The former party of Government, the Labour Party (now more commonly referred to as “New Labour”) came second in the general election, has been led by Ed Miliband MP since recently (his current title in the House of Commons is “Leader of HM Opposition”), and its current membership is around 0.3% of the population. I quote the membership numbers here only because of their possible relevance to the “law of diminishing representation”.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 22

Ah, the delicate intricacies of Scottish Law – as simple as a Celtic Knot, and yet as full of spriteliness as a Strathspey minuet.

You will have gathered that our quondam lurker-upon-the-hilltop has been “up before the beak” again. Indeed. T’is so. On this occasion – you’ll like this – he made a declaration of beshrievement, relying on Rex Scotorum vs MacBeachcombe, and on principle historical. The fact that his preamble quoted “køld eru opt kvena rad” was remarkable, as this has no precedent outside Orcadia (except for one occasion when it was invoked in the Bailiwick of Carloway, and that with much ensuing controversy in Chambers Pursuivant).

On this occasion it was ruled out-of-fiefdom by the Scrabster Depute, who informed the assembly of his intention to rule usque ad nauseam if there were no presentations made to the Clerk of the Scrolls before three high tides had passed. The Advocate-in-Chief, however, missived him to enquire whether proceedings could be translated to Fife, and if not, whether Eccleprudence could be revived in this instance. There were several objections to this made by ancillary feu-holders, whose briefs had been declared to be standing behind the case, but these were judged to have fallen, by dint of having no Seal Official.

I had to laugh!

It is just as well that the motto of the Marshall family is: Sicut Ippititimum Collida Tenare!

I believe I had told you before of the effect upon Consuela (my Tejana maid) of our commando raid upon that neighbouring hilltop. Of late she and I have been choosing to spend our nights away from the shelter of the teepee, our backs against a Scots pine, a bivouac of birch-branches and scrim-net over our heads, leaning together for warmth. We fall asleep to the stately dance of the northern stars, to the vigorous heckling of the rain, to the whispered stories of a thousand-thousand fallen leaves, and wake stiff of limb but at peace with the world. One night I dreamed that she leant over and kissed me. I am sure it was a dream but, for the very reason that I remember it, it must have been one I had when close to waking. Back at the teepee the following morning, Consuela was uncharacteristically quiet whilst washing the dishes. Normally she would be whistling, humming, or singing one of her favourite duranguense “corridos”, but on this occasion her lips remained closed and her wistful gaze played over the detergent suds…