Mark Perryman from Philosophy Football reviews the best reading of the quarter
As the Thatcher funeral hoopla fades away and the focus shifts to the likely rout of the Con-Dems in the 2 May local elections, the political landscape outside the Westminster bubble in the next few months is likely to be further shaped by the deepening impact of the cuts. Central to this, and sparking enormous local campaigns such as in Lewisham remains the not-so-creeping privatisation of the NHS and the resultant cuts in vital services including A&E. Roger Taylor’s carefully-argued God Bless the NHS isn’t perhaps the call to action some campaigners might be looking for yet his depiction of the rude health of an NHS as the closest thing we have to a ‘national religion’ is a spectacular contrast to the so-called crisis the government claims to be fixing with its marketised reforms. Those reforms and the ideology behind them are brilliantly dissected in this powerfully argued book.
Perhaps less central, except for those immediately affected, the university sector has been affected by the most revolutionary change of all. The student-led tuition fees protests were the first mass resistance to the government; now the eye-watering £9,000 a year fees are turning these places of learning into just another marketplace that will have enormous social consequences in years to come. Andrew McGettigan’s The Great University Gamble spells out in chilling detail what the future of Higher Education run as a business will look like. It is hard to imagine another crisis won’t be sparked as the scale of these changes start to turn our universities into upper middle-class finishing schools and never mind the rest. In all the acres of newsprint eulogising Thatcher few remarked on the fact that student loans replacing grants and £9000 per year university tuition fees were policies not even she and her ministers dared contemplate. Many on the Left argue that in order to understand the sheer scale of the austerity agenda onslaught we need a broader analysis of its roots combined with an effective counter-narrative.
One effort towards this has been launched by the editors and writers behind Soundings, the politics and culture journal. Their After Neoliberalism Manifesto will be published in twelve monthly instalments, each as a free download. Subjects to be covered following April’s framing statement include the economy, welfare, patriarchy, and generational politics. Expect fresh and radical thinking in abundance. Providing a focus for activists in the next few months will be the 22 June Peoples Assembly Against Austerity, initiated by the trade unions to seek to build a broader community campaign against the cuts. Yet as has recently been argued by the socialist writer David Renton the unions aren’t what they once were. A fascinating account of the social and political force of left-led political trade unionism is provided by the biography of Communist Party Industrial Organiser Bert Ramelson, Revolutionary Communist at Work. In many ways an inspirational read, the harder part remains though, how to adapt a politics framed by trade unionism to the changed working conditions and culture that David Renton patiently describes in his piece.
Published in a new and updated edition, Paul Mason’s Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere provides a panoramic survey of the seedbeds of a new protest movement, largely existing and organising outside the ranks of the traditional left and labour movement. Globally youthful, well-educated, social media savvy, wedded to organisational forms that revolve more around autonomism and horizontalism than either Leninism or Labourism. Paul Mason’s writing is breathless reportage at its best. Where did this all begin? There is never one simple start point for the new but ten years on for the thirtysomething activist the huge anti-war demo of 15 February 2003 will probably remain the key moment of their political lives so far. Chris Nineham was one of the march’s organisers and remains one of the key figures behind the left-wing group Counterfire. His book about the 2003 march, The People v Tony Blair is an interesting argument about how the power of protest is represented, and more often misrepresented, by the media providing vital insights into how to construct present and future resistance to austerity and much else. Ian Sinclair takes a different, and more politically neutral, approach with his The March That Shook Blair. This is an oral history of the 15 February march as told by those who took part. The variety of voices is hugely impressive with a wide range of themes covered too, together creating a picture of a day that didn’t stop the war but for many changed their lives.
One of the key characteristics of the anti-war movement was the huge involvement of the Muslim community in the protests. This hadn’t happened before with campaigns such as CND, or even the Anti-Nazi League. A 21st century protest movement is fatally narrowed if it isn’t multicultural in complexion. What this can look like was illustrated again by the large and lively demonstrations against Israel’s air and land assault in Gaza, ‘Operation Cast Lead’, in December 2008. Generation Palestine edited by Rich Wiles is an excellent digest of experiences from the growing movement to boycott Israel, with divestment and sanctions as key tactics of pressure. While the comparisons of Israel with Apartheid South Africa are difficult for some to accept the involvement of such leading figures as Archbishop Desmond Tutu in this book points to an increasing urgency to change Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians and the global movement of solidarity this is sparking. A future campaigning priority, which also has the potential once again to reach out to the Muslim community because of their deployment against targets in Pakistan, is the military use of airborne drones. Medea Benjamin’s Drone Warfare is a passionately written account of what is becoming one of the fastest growing weapons of modern warfare. Remote control is characterised by the dehumanisation of their targets, with Medea making the key point that their escalating deployment will almost certainly see their use in retaliation in the near future, unless this escalation can be stopped by the kind of campaigning she begins to describe.
If the sci-fi world of drone warfare seems futuristic Arms and the People edited by Mike Gonzalez and Houman Barekat helps the process of making connections between past, present and future wars, resistance and social change. A richly original study of the role of the military in popular movements ranging over the Paris Commune, Russian Revolution, Chile and the Arab Spring, this is a book to make readers think carefully about the role of the military not just in stopping revolutions, but making them happen too. Of course the Spanish Civil War features in the collection. It remains an iconic moment of Left history, still celebrated today by Philosophy Football’s best-selling British Battalion T-shirt. Richard Baxell’s magnificent Unlikely Warriors is surely set to become the definitive account of the British in the Civil War’s International Brigades. A brilliant piece of military- history at its best, capturing the extraordinary courage of untrained volunteers travelling to a foreign land to join the fight for land and freedom, while never failing to describe the grim reality of the loss of life and eventual defeat.
On the British left it is rare to find sport , except occasionally men’s football, being taken particularly seriously. Perhaps in part that’s because, or maybe why, we don’t boast a critical sportswriter remotely like America’s Dave Zirin. His latest book Game Over makes the argument for sport as politics in an engaging and thought-provoking style that has the ability to connect with a popular audience. Football and the Arab Spring, the 2012 Olympics, sexism and racism in sport, athletics, lessons of the Occupy movement for fan resistance, this is the kind of sportswriting neither the mainstream nor the Left press very often feature. Dave shows why and how it could.
Redefining, or if you prefer, repositioning the ‘political’ to embrace a much broader cultural agenda, including but beyond sport, should be a central theme in any movement towards the next Left. Richard Weight’s comprehensive account Mod effortlessly mixes the historical, the social and the cultural to produce a style of writing that is both detailed in its coverage yet so sharply written never to lose its focus or argument. Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender by Rhian.E.Jones provides a refreshingly polemical account of pop and politics, with an angry denunciation of exclusions common to both centred on class and gender. Rich in its musical references, this is a book that knows its way round the deficiencies in politics too. Perhaps reflecting a more hopeful moment when the mix of pop and politics co-existed in a more mutually inclusive manner Tracey Thorn’s memoir Bedsit Disco Queen is without doubt one of the stand-out titles of this quarter. From the early eighties indiedom of the Marine Girls, to the slow-burn success of the jazzily soulful Everything but the Girl to indie elder stateswoman, Tracey Thorn chronicles life, music and movement with a writing style than never fails to enthral and inspire, plus a healthy dose of nostalgia for those of us of a certain age, enjoy!
The politico-fiction list for this quarter is particularly strong. Leo Zelig’s debut novel, Eddie The Kid is centred on the anti-war movement, full of personal intrigue, destiny, hope and despair. London’s Overthrow is a novella by the much celebrated writer and SWP dissident China Mieville. This is extreme dystopianism as the capital falls apart besieged by riots and repression yet with a political core projecting the shape of what an alternative might look like for a city in violent and desperate decline. Christopher Brookmyre is now well-established as one of Britain’s most popular crime writers, not of the stature of Ian Rankin, Christopher however manages to inject both a humour and a politics into his books that are less obvious in most of Rankin’s work. His latest is Bedlam and is unlikely to disappoint Brookmyre fans. Nightmarish violence, a chaotic plot, deadly satire aimed at the political establishment, and defiantly Scottish. All the ingredients of what has helped make Chris’s books such a great read. Few fiction writers have tried to explain the motivations that turned a small but significant group in the 1930s into Soviet spies. Demonised as dupes, crooks or charlatans, the political circumstances that led them to risk everything are rarely given much space. Jennie Rooney’s Red Joan makes a serious, and extremely readable, effort in that direction in her story that is more than loosely based on real-life spy Melita Norwood. An intensely personal story and it is this approach that helps the reader to understand, if not sympathise, with the reason why for some the ideals of Communism meant sacrificing family and country for that cause.
Book of the quarter? There’s only one contender. Published posthumously Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century will sadly now be Eric Hobsbawm’s final book. The subject matter, and the range, is a testament to Eric’s ability to combine political analysis, the finest historical writing of the modern era and cultural criticism. Chapters include Jewish culture, festivals, the Art Nouveau movement, the role of intellectuals, and an incredible account of the mythology of the Wild West cowboy. Whether there will ever be a writer of the Left like Eric again will in many ways be determined by a politics emerging that can also combine historical tradition, a politics of resistance and revolt with a theory and practice that understands the crucial role of culture in both forming and changing ideas. Here’s hoping!
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Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football