A) for the planet’s sake, and B) just to survive, the Left needs to get ‘generic’

The status quo risks the destruction of our species and the ecosystem all life relies on
The status quo risks the destruction of our species and the ecosystem all life relies on

The blogosphere reverberates with people self-importantly telling each other what ‘the Left’ should be doing. What the world and her springer spaniel are clearly crying out for, then, is another deeply unpopular, laughably unlikely ramshackle leftist strategy, hastily rammed in the virtual left-wing suggestion box and probably never seen again. The Bemolution lives to serve.

The Left should radically and unsentimentally revamp itself, turning what is all too often a fossilised remnant of the early twentieth century into something specifically addressing the social, political and ecological here and now. It should drop the blinkered obsession with past ideological battles. Instead, it needs to hammer itself back into contemporary relevance, going back to first principles and relating them afresh to the way the world is today.

Ecological crisis looms, providing humanity with the biggest threat to its continued existence in thousands of years. Faced with probable environmental disaster, caused for the most part by the growth-obsession and chronic waste of a culture skewed in the interests of the scandalously wealthy, we need to radically reshape civilisation and make our species live within its means. A system that has already used and abused millions of individual homo sapiens as disposable tools for enriching tiny minorities, along with squandering the potential of millions more by dismissing them as stupid and/or leaving them to flounder in poverty, is now well on the way to ravaging the planet beyond the point of no return. Continue reading “A) for the planet’s sake, and B) just to survive, the Left needs to get ‘generic’”

Neoliberalism Nutshelled

The City of London
The City of London

A shameless, propagandising character assassination on everyone’s favourite wrenchingly unjust set of socioeconomic arrangements.

There’s nothing remotely original left to say about capitalism – or, for that matter, the ecological catastrophe it’s causing in its current neoliberal, hyper-consumerist form. 

Our whole way of life, in the Westernised world at least, is geared around constantly increasing the production and consumption of goods and services that we don’t need. Prevailing economic logic holds that to be ‘healthy’, an economy has to grow about 3% each year. That can’t be achieved by just satisfying real human needs – so instead, society has to create new, artificial needs. Continue reading “Neoliberalism Nutshelled”

Left-Wing Least-Worstism: Unite Or Die

The reason this blog’s cod-philosophical standpoint is called ‘Left-Wing Least-Worstism’ is because of a very un-leftish pessimism. The situation we’re in is abjectly bad.

That might sound extreme – the consensus seems to be that things might be tentatively improving on the political front. Certainly, Occupy and the boisterous anti-cuts movement have provided some much-needed reasons to be almost cheerful. But we need to be brutally realistic – they come after a quarter-century of decline. More tellingly, they had little to do with the ‘established’ Left, instead riding on the free-thinking and initiative of passionate individuals largely operating outside official groups. Continue reading “Left-Wing Least-Worstism: Unite Or Die”

Left Wing Least Worstism II: Pressing Eco-Matters

93083320CF015_CLIMATE_CHANGWho/what/where/why is the Left circa 2013? Unwisely, the Bemolution is going to have a go at answering that. But before we start banging on about fairly insular aspects of present-day left-wing politics, it’s worth meditating on the big issue underlying all of what will follow – namely the environmental bottom line. Are you sitting uncomfortably? Then we’ll begin.

The world we live in is often crushingly, self-parodyingly bleak. It’s ridden with preventable misery and wobbles on the brink of ecological catastrophe. The minority most capable of doing anything about it – the section of affluent Western societies who aren’t forced to spend all their time and energy just trying to scrape by – has sunk itself in a mire of ignorance, short-sightedness, and unquestioning, mindless excess. And, as a result, addressing either the misery or the catastrophe couldn’t be further from the mainstream political agenda. Hurriedly nut-shelled, that’s the problem we’re faced with. Like a newly-qualified boy-racer who crashes the family Ford Escort on his first run out of town, humanity has squandered its planetary inheritance, doing more damage to the ecosystem in a few hundred years than trillions of previous careful owner-organisms had done in over a billion. Continue reading “Left Wing Least Worstism II: Pressing Eco-Matters”

Bem

Joe in the politics room, circa 2008
Joe in the politics room, circa 2008

At college, instead of concentrating on my A Levels, I ended up in the middle of a strange, probably cult-like campus subculture we called Bem. I didn’t come up with the name – it was a random nonsense word I think my friend Joe invented one day in a boring Politics lesson, but I can’t really remember. Looking back, it was about not liking the state society was in, and trying to live out an alternative in everything you did.

We were all left-wing. We all hated consumerism, conformism and the slow strangulation of anything interesting and original in the cultural realm. And we all shared the same bleak, surreal sense of humour. Most of all, we were united by the belief that civilisation was terrible. Millions starved, died in droughts, died in childbirth, died of treatable diseases – and the richest, most technologically advanced societies in human history did nothing about it. Most people didn’t even notice, let alone care.

Our fellow students seemed to typify everything that was wrong – shallow, materialistic, self-obsessed. Clueless about the sheer horrifying extent of suffering in the world, and utterly absorbed by the mindless triviality of their own silly little lives. Here was a society where callousness and ignorance was the default setting. And we set about an inevitably doomed but passionately heartfelt attempt to undermine it all by refusing to take it seriously. We were like apocalyptic mini-Chomskys crossed with the Chuckle Brothers.

If I do say so myself, I think our critique of modern society was remarkably insightful for a bunch of grouchy teenagers fresh out of secondary education. But we were still very far from perfect.

For one, we were far too harsh on our fellow students. They weren’t all the feckless neoliberal drones we made them out to be – especially up against the kind of people I’d meet at Cambridge.

We were also distinctly rubbish when it came to actually doing anything about our politics. To be fair, we did a lot of anti-fascism campaigning when the BNP came to town. But most of the time, we were content to just lounge around feeling radical because we listened to Stevie Wonder, The Smiths and Berlin-era Bowie rather than Rihanna and Take That. We were lazy, we were extremely pessimistic, and we were all political mouth and no activist trousers.

When college ended, we all shot off in different directions to get on with being adults. I see some of them regularly, others nowhere near as regularly as I’d like – but however much they’ve changed in the years since, I’d say pretty much all of them have hung on to something of that original outlook.

Partly thanks to the experience of going from a single parent household in the land neoliberalism forgot to Oxbridge and back, I went on to become more political than ever. To the extent that, shockingly, I now sometimes even get out and do some actual activism.

These days, I’m a shambolic mish-mash of far-left atheist vicar and lentil-munching free love hippy. I’m far less cynical about people, and particularly my own generation, which has turned out to be more left-wing and switched on than I ever would’ve imagined in the old days. And yet I dislike the state modern society’s in as much as ever. Most of all, I’m focused on the horrifying scale of preventable humanitarian suffering in the world, and the catastrophic damage humanity is doing to its environment.

In other words, there have been tweaks along the way, but it’s still essentially Bem. I still see politics, music, personal conduct, even having a certain type of sense of humour, as all part of the same thing – a wholesale rejection of a way of life that’s well on the way to being cataclysmic. And when I started a blog in 2011, just about the same time ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ jazz-rapper Gil Scot Heron died, the thing named itself.

Four and a bit years down the line, I’m finally getting round to some of the things I wanted to do with this site when I first started it – talk about an accessible, environmentally-focused modern manifestation of radical socialism. Explain economics in a way that laypeople can understand, and that isn’t skewed in favour of the status quo. Ramble inanely about my own vision of socially engaged atheism-as-a-religion. And I can now officially say that sometimes, occasionally, someone even reads it.

All The Madmen (David Bowie)

Shuffle glibly through David Bowie’s commercial highlights – ‘Heroes’, Changes, Let’s Dance etc – and you won’t come away with the image of a songwriter whose principal thematic ingredients include crippling paranoia, isolation, totalitarianism, dystopia, Nietzchian supermen, the occult, various shades of emotional anguish and madness. In Bowie’s darker work, the last one has proved to be a particular preoccupation. As a boy, the young David was close to his half-brother Terry Burns, a charismatic jazz-buff who introduced Bowie to the scratchy improvisations of Ornette Coleman and was influential in shaping his brother’s later avant-garde proclivities. Terry was also schizophrenic. Continue reading “All The Madmen (David Bowie)”

Blue Labour

Baron Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill
Baron Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill

‘Blue Labour’ is the latest faintly ridiculous-sounding political buzz-term to briefly excite the national commentariat, be myopically hailed as having seismic potential, before promptly going the way of the do-do.

As ever, ‘the debate’ is one that’s blazed between about 12 people in North London, without much in the way of impact outside the Comment section of the Guardian. But, unfortunately, it’s the only sign of ideological life detectable from the cadaverous Labour Party. And, as such, is probably worth taking half-seriously, since Labour is far too important, and potentially dangerous, for this kind of thing to be ignored.

Largely the work of the likably bohemian academic and activist Maurice Glasman, an increasingly rare example of a British political figure with a personality and a sense of humour, Blue Labour sells itself as a radical traditionalist alternative to Labour’s prevailing ethos. Continue reading “Blue Labour”

Forehead! versus the Democratic Process

Occasionally, Forehead! brushes up against the local big-wigs of representative democracy. Faced with an immovable District Council that’s openly disdainful towards a large swathe of its electorate, we’re left wearily appealing to a higher political power for help.

To recap: not only does the prospect of a 60,000 sq ft Tescos loom grimly on the horizon, but the Council now wants to sell one of our few remaining scraps of public green space to accommodate it. It’s a field with a play area in it, conveniently situated at the centre of town next to the waste ground where the swimming pool used to be. Tescos want the pool site, and the green.

And it’s from this situation that we turned to our MP for back up. The gentleman in question is a bluff shire Tory, a former army officer and a member of the socially conservative Cornerstone Group. He likes to present himself as an irrepressible backbench maverick often found engaged in blazing rows with David Cameron. In actual fact, he’s among the staunchest of Party loyalists. Among the townsfolk, he’s seen as a bit of a joke. Continue reading “Forehead! versus the Democratic Process”

Amused To Death

britain's got talent stuff

Most mainstream British culture can be broadly categorised as being either fuzzily heart-warming or emptily brash. Being cosy and safe, or unchallenging and easy-on-the-eye-and-ear seems to be the driving ethos behind a growing majority of our cultural output.

It’s not that any of the above is bad in isolation. Escapism isn’t just nice, it’s necessary. The pace of modern life is manic enough to drive anyone insane without distraction from unflinching reality. But modern British culture is almost all escapism. Which isn’t nearly as harmless as it sounds. Things aren’t looking good for civilisation. We’ve done more damage to the planet in 50 years that anything alive has done in the last billion, and looming environmental catastrophe hasn’t stopped our unthinking trundle towards collapse. Technology gallops ahead in ways that could help alleviate such chronic deprivation, but could equally prove perilous. With the next century likely to see leaps made in nano- and biotechnology, the potential for horrific fallout increases if fanatics are able to access these innovations. Nuclear terrorism already poses a huge threat, with poorly-secured Soviet warheads and recent concern about Pakistani nuclear security heightening fears that these devices could fall into terrorist hands.

One of Britain’s most venerable scientists suggests there’s a 50/50 chance that humanity will not survive the current century. Such an apocalyptic prediction would’ve been derided as laughably pessimistic even ten years ago, but is now deemed plausible enough to be taken half-seriously.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people go uneducated, have their human rights trampled over, or have no access to clean drinking water. Three billion survive on less than two dollars a day, fifteen million die yearly of starvation, and millions more died in recent conflicts in Rwanda and the Congo that have gone almost completely unnoticed by the ‘developed’ world.

Our culture just doesn’t reflect the gravity of the global situation. Skim through the most-watched British TV programmes of the last decade and you’ll find soaps, the X Factor, and lots of celebrities, with a sprinkling of vacantly twee Doc Martins and Lark Rise To Candlefords to warm the heart-cockles of a Sunday evening. Unsurprisingly, British pop music has never found space for twelve minute dirges about Rwandan genocide, but neither has it ever been so relentlessly banal – at least the blank hedonism of the ‘80s stimulated a half-decent reaction. Given the state of the world around us, Britain’s cultural frothiness is offensive. The image conveyed is one of a society fascinated, above all, by itself.

Hayek, Rand, Cheryl Cole

It would be fairly ridiculous to suggest Emmerdale and Cheryl Cole are solely responsible for our cultural narcissism. They simply reflect the state of British society – one in which individualism has been the dominant political and economic trend for thirty years. In the 1970s, economists like Hayek who saw the state as an oppressive force that smothered individual freedom and economic initiative became incredibly influential. Pinochet, Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher were the most prominent world leaders who took this neoliberal project and pursued it through political channels. Amidst the more tangible, obvious changes this brought about – lowered taxes, the privatisation of previously state-run utilities, financial deregulation – the underlying cultural shift was profound. Hayek, Friedman and Rand seeped into our culture. Easy credit stoked consumers into a hedonistic frenzy, borrowing to fund increased consumption becoming commonplace. Manufacturers cottoned on quickly, purposely designing products with shorter and shorter lifetimes whilst constantly unveiling newer and snazzier trinkets to ensure consumers kept consuming.

The economy became increasingly geared around satisfying the non-essential material wants of the general public. To the young and impressionable at the time, life seemed increasingly geared around them, centred on You. Mrs T’s infamous (and over-quoted) declaration that there was no such thing as society, just individuals and their families, was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy by the 1990s. Government was convincing people this was true. New Labour was all about getting the most for You And Your Family, giving Choice to You And Your Family, with any notion of responsibility to anyone else swept under the carpet.

Me-centrism

Over the last fifty years, technology has advanced in such a way to allow communication between people from opposite poles of the planet. In 2011, the average person must be ten times more worldly and well-travelled than a representative individual from the 1950s. And yet people’s worlds have shrunk. We’re more selfish and insular than ever. We believe that the day-to-day trivialities of our lives are genuinely important. There are now entire generations who never saw the age before culture was dominated by ads and fads and in which You weren’t necessarily the centre of the universe.

Turn on your TV in 2011 and you can experience Me-centrism in glorious Technicolor. Shows like the X Factor display it brilliantly – to succeed in the realm of Simon Cowell is to elicit mindless adulation for about five minutes and make money with which to buy material things. You can succeed if you sing well. And what is actually meant by singing well is warbling histrionically like a bargain-basement Beyonce, rigidly adhering to a lifelessly safe strain of plastic soul. In this world, getting lucky in the generic lottery and being gorgeous is effectively an entry qualification (unless you’re the one who gets to buck the trend and be horrifically condescended by people who can scarcely believe you have talent while not being conventionally attractive). Essentially, it’s all about You achieving Your Dream of being fabulously wealthy and celebrated and loved.

If you understandably wanted to pierce the veil of frippery between you and the real world, you might try The News, or ‘serious culture’. But The News just shuffles glibly through world events, often prioritising relatively minor domestic issues, emotionlessly flitting between global horror stories at top speed before jerkily seguing into a silly story about a cat that can play the bassoon.

Issues are only dwelt on as long as they’re flashy and interesting. Just recently, the Japanese earthquake and subsequent fallout, the assassination of Bin Laden, and Anders Behring Breivik’s killing spree were everywhere for a few days before vanishing completely. Obviously, news stories run their course, some faster than others. But the surreal way in which harrowing disasters are impassively served up then suddenly disappear just makes them seem distant and unreal, and easier to ignore. The fact that tens of thousands of people are facing slow death by starvation in East Africa has slipped down the back of the news agenda altogether. The only event that’s recently achieved half the level of coverage global suffering deserves was that cutesiest and most reassuring of spectacles, the Royal Wedding.

Vacant

In 1985, the distractingly-named US academic Neil Postman published a book called Amusing Ourselves To Death, a curmudgeonly broadside against what he saw as the stupefying effects of television on American society.

Postman’s work was complex, often incisive, and occasionally slipped into embittered ‘kids-these-days’ territory. His most striking contention was glumly political: that America’s obsession with TV could lead to tyranny. He drew on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, set in an outwardly utopian, but, in reality, totalitarian future, in which the populace is kept happily docile through a combination of no-strings sex, and a routinely-ingested hallucinogen called soma. Providing balmy escapism to millions, TV was the real-world soma in Postman’s eyes.

He also thought Sesame Street posed a grave threat to Western education, so he shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But the Huxleyan image of a blinkered society wilfully retreating into a schmaltzy cocoon is worryingly appropriate for modern Britain. The sixth richest country in the world has turned inwards. Realistically, there’s very little even an enlightened and galvanised Britain could do about glowering global problems on its own. But until its population, and the population of countries like it, start to move away from cossetted insularity nothing much is going to change, and we’ll continue whinging about house prices and watching TV while millions suffer. As it stands, our culture is shamefully vacant.

Frank Zappa

Last December, it was Frank Zappa’s 70th birthday. Twentieth-century music’s most prominent Sicilian-Greek-Arab-American guitarist, composer and satirising iconoclast was duly celebrated by hard-core adherents on both sides of the Atlantic. Festivities were only slightly dampened by the fact the man himself had been dead for 17 years.

Whether he would’ve appreciated this heartfelt commemoration is questionable. When he wasn’t touring, Zappa was a near-recluse. After his death from prostate cancer in 1993, Zappa was buried in an unmarked grave in California’s Westwood Cemetery. He insisted that it wasn’t important to be remembered – ‘legacy’, in Zappa’s eyes, was for the megalomaniac Ronald Reagans of the world to worry about. Continue reading “Frank Zappa”