What’s Left?

It has been four and a half years since the coalition was formed. Doesn’t it seem a life time since the Liberal Democrats were actually remotely popular. And it would be easy, and slightly cynical to say that nothing has changed, but the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Most will say that this is a reason for less hope (remember that from a hopeful American in 2008, now there’s a life time away), whilst others may claim that this is reason for more hope, right and left.

In 1819, Percy Shelley invoked the state of England in his Sonnet,

An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king,
Princes,the dregs of their dull race, who flow –
Through public scorn, – mud from a muddy spring,
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field…

This is far from Matthew Arnold’s description of him as “a beautiful but ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain,” but although the power does not necessarily reside in the Monarchy the same way as it once did, Shelley’s words angry words, remind us of the dying social fabric of the society we’re living in right now; the rulers who do not see, or feel, or know what it’s like. One can feel the crippling, leech-like austerity, that sucks the wealth away to those at the top, thanks to the complicity of the rulers.

The past four years have seen the rise of Nigel Farage. Not only has it been a good half a decade for Farage but has been for UKIP, as several defections have led to a number of by-election victories. UKIP’s apparently hardening, but what looks more like populist shape-shifting, policies on immigration have gained those too scared to admit their xenophobia. But now they can, as his popularity soars.

I don’t want to really talk about Farage and UKIP though, at least not directly. Because that is precisely what everybody else is doing, and most intensely doing so, mainly those on the left. This encompasses the problem; the problem with society and politics is not with those on the right at the moment, they know their position and unashamedly so. Nigel Farage doesn’t necessarily understand the principles of a solid, nuanced policy, but then again he is a politician, but at least knows his position. And, okay, he might not be willing to accept that if he really was to leave the European Union to reduce/stop immigration that the economy would shrink and crash, but he is seemingly willing to sacrifice that at the expense of assuming power.

Is there some solace in this? There has to be and there always is light somewhere. We are seeing a movement away from the liberal-centre ground, and one can anticipate, or one hopes if they are on a genuine left, not liberal-left, that this will open up that chasm. And who would this benefit? As UKIP’s target audience affects those in the twilight years of their lives, cherishing an white-British, red and white shop awned high streets, a ‘revived’ left would affect those who have never even seen a left – the young. Those who have been truly shafted by this idea of liberalism, have had their tuition fees raised, have had their health service destroyed, and cost of living obliterated.

This is of course what the Greens hope and are beginning to appeal to, or where they need to appeal – that disillusioned youth (admittedly like me). These are the people who aren’t voting, who have grown up in this world of liberalism, where New-Labour was nothing but an incarnation of Thatcherite free-market, individualism. Now the Green’s, through their own will or not, are endorsing themselves to that demographic.

It is hip to be left though, or at least slightly left. Somewhere between socialism and centre-left, perhaps a Green left that preaches equality, conservation, anti-nuclear stances. But it’s not cool to be properly left, a full on Marxist; Socialism seems okay, but Marxism throws up all the synonyms that the free-world tried to eradicate, when they should have been eradicating things like racism. Trotsky, Lenin, Communism: it is uncool, to be one of these. The reason that nobody is properly left is more down to the fact that nobody knows what it means – the whole problem with the right is, is down to the problem of the left.

To explain, after the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks, Slavoj Žižek– everybody’s favourite Communist – was typically given column space. I’m sceptical, criticial of Žižek, which I think is understandable of anybody dubbed the ‘Elvis of Philosophy’, but I have cited him and used him in both my academic and non-academic work. For all his repetiveness (in the mainstream media), his pop-culture references, his general chaos, he always provides an incite, a confounding of the popular opinion.

In the New Statesman piece, Žižek cites Walter Benjamin’s “every rise of Facism bears witness to a failed revolution”; the rise of Facism is a failure of the left, but there was at some point proof that a revolution was possible. The rise of Liberalism, according to Žižek, has led to the rise of this Islamo-Facism. He states that liberalism will eventually undermine itself, and the only way to defeat fundamentalism is by the help of a renewed, radical left.
Žižek concludes invoking Max Horkheimer;

“those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about Fascism – should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.”

And the core of the question returns, what on Earth is left? Who are our key proponents of the left? Just look at those who in the mainstream media who have been calling for revolutions, who have been denouncing Farage, battling him; Russell Brand and Al Murray. Actors, which some might argue is all a politician is in this media saturated world. No wonder nobody believes in a left any more. The properly angry ones right now are the ones on the right, who Farage has successfully riled up with his nationalist rhetoric. These are the people who are going to be voting. And who’s fault is that? Farage’s? No – it is those on the left, those without a cause and without an idea – the liberals. It is a critical failure of the left in the U.K that Farage has been allowed to present himself as the hallowed ‘Everyman’, the pint drinker (Al Murray’s Landlord alter ego is planning to stand against Farage).

It is too easy to lambast Farage; we know, he probably knows, that he is racist, that his economic policy would destroy the nations’ economy, but we will carry on doing so as long as he remains in the limelight. Those who do not want to talk critically about the left in Britain, should also keep quiet about the right In Britain. Facebook, and Twitter posts that awash sites when Farage is given coverage seem almost projections of this weakness in people’s own views – by exposing their weakness we can cover up and deflect from our own.

Politics is glossy and no matter what your standing is, David Cameron is a very believable person. He is uniform, polished and enviable. Ed Milliband isn’t. People want an alternative but they don’t believe in Ed to deliver it, the man who looks like an Aardman creation.  I went with this as well, what seemed to be a regular walking disaster. No matter the photoshoot, no matter how well it’s set-up, he always manages to confound it, just by his look, his stance, his general poise, wondering why anybody would want this man as their Prime Minister. Then as I watched Channel 4’s hyperbolic, Americanised, ‘The Battle for Number 10’, I almost had a revelation. Regardless of how Ed Milliband conveys himself, or how natural he tries to look, he will always look too rehearsed, unnatural. He cannot do it, he cannot look natural. A joke is a serious thing said Freud, and perhaps this joker poses a serious point; a man who confounds the glitz (and the glitz is what we all proclaim to be tired of) is denounced for not being believable is perhaps a man to believe in. The man who looks naturally unnatural in a unnaturally made up setting. Yet polls still show us believing in the man who has undergone so much polishing he resembles something from Madame Tussauds. It’s a choice between the comedic clay model, or the waxwork.

Shelley’s sonnet goes, characteristically ending optimistically.

Religion Christless, Godless – a book sealed;
A Senate, – Time’s worst statute unrepealed,-
Are graves, from which a glorious phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

There are other instances of hope – Greece for instance. Realistically though, Ed was critical of New Labour, and although he is so diluted, and un-radical, he has shown policies that are retractions and reductions, but are, yes, believable. Farage was once a joke and now he isn’t, he is in some way a threat, so maybe Ed should take some lessons from him. A renewed, revived left might be too much for the U.K voters now, just a left in itself would be a reprieve. The glorious phantom may present itself, rather than as a person, but as an idea, movement, or as a punchline.

Slavoj Žižek’s article can be found here: http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2015/01/slavoj-i-ek-charlie-hebdo-massacre-are-worst-really-full-passionate-intensity


Review: Graham Swift – England and Other Stories

With the surge in the short story’s popularity, a current trend is for all the stories to be embedded in a unifying theme. Graham Swift, as the title suggests is tackling one big old subject. As we emerge out of the postmodern age, conceptions of British society, affected by more wars, multiculturalism, capitalism, nostalgic notions Blighty have never looked so fractured, yet so enforced. Swift, instead of trying to answer any questions is, if anything, admitting that he doesn’t know himself, after watching the England he has written about over the years change and alter irrevocably.

The works span the length and breadth of England from Yorkshire to Yeovil. But it’s not the glorious England, nor is it necessarily the ugly England, it’s just the unexceptional England. Most of the characters are older, approaching retirement, with a consciousness of their declining years, but the idea of ‘not getting anywhere’ works as something of a pun throughout Swift’s work. They’re also usually confronting death or trauma, something that has carried on from his recent novels Last Orders and Wish You Were Here.

In under 300 pages,  there are 21 stories, which leaves them inconclusive and unresolved. Opening with ‘Going Up In The World’ , mundane England, or at least the mundane middle class lives of England that Swift wishes to capture, is laid out here. It’s an account imbued with irony as ‘going up in the world’ doesn’t refer to the meteoric success of the capitalist years in Britain but rather a window cleaning empire of the new skyscraper buildings that have left the ‘ordinary’ people behind.  Charlie is reminiscing the development of his relationship with Don, and how they ended up going up in the world physically and metaphorically, and as window cleaning business might allude to, they are looking from the outside in on this new world.

But to say it’s about the mundane lives of ordinary people, it’s not on the back of mundane events, because British history is hardly mundane. War existentially hangs over the stories; like Wish You Were Here which prominently addressed grief in the Iraq war and had that element of both the fascination in the celebration of war and imperialism, but it was also ultimately about it’s futile and mortal effects on ordinary lives. Lives like in ‘Fusili’, as a man shops in Waitrose after the death of his son in Afghanistan.

If there’s one thing the British do generally, unequivocally celebrate, it’s the monarchy. In ‘Haematology’ William Harvey, Doctor of Physic writes to his cousin Colonel Edward Francis, The Council of Officers in the year 1649. William is exiled, and although the reasons are not made clear, it’s due to some kind of heresy against the King, in the name of science “there is heresy and heresy, there is dogma and dogma.” ‘Haematology’ is not there as a wildcard, or an experimentation of form; as all the stories hint toward being written recently under the agenda of ‘England’,  it’s not there to make us aware of how England has developed, and become more liberal – it’s the opposite. This isn’t realism or a chronicle of British history, “We have no civility but a confusion of godliness and war. Such our new world,” says the exiled physician.

This slight disdain to authority permeates the stories.  It’s like a rejection of their older selves, that the young people didn’t want to become, but ultimately did, when their youth had no boundaries, no preconceptions . In ‘Ajax’, the naivete of a young person, it is assumed leads him into an almost deathly, juvenile trap because of the ‘weirdo’ next door. “”I was the undoing” the narrator said.” Mr Wilkinson does unconventional activities in his underpants, unconventional for a middle class suburb in the seventies at least.

It seems the small act of communication that the protagonist tries to instigate in ‘Ajax’, which he is restricted from doing, carrying it out through his fence, an obvious symbol, is something that Swift is trying to urge throughout. Communication breaks down borders, which England certainly has a problem in coming to terms with Swift’s grand message appears to be. Weather features often, highlighting this subject; obviously England’s cliche obsession with it, but captures Britain’s ‘small-island syndrome’, and its xenophobic fear of its shores been flooded. But then what is the weather but the most banal of conversation starters in England?

It’s as if all this comes to a head in ‘Tragedy, Tragedy’, this loss of meaning in modern day society. Two blokes (that is what they simply are – blokes- no other term seems fitting) discuss the way papers always relate everything to tragedy – “Ever feel there’s too much tragedy about” Mick says in their blokeish, everyman wisdom, which Swift is so adept at conveying,

“Tragedy’s about acting too. It’s about stuff that’s happening on stage. Shakespeare and stuff. That’s the thing about it. It’s not real life.”

What is this real life? What is ‘stuff’? That word ‘stuff’ so perfect. The two blokes don’t know the answer, and nor does Swift. And tragedy is everywhere in apparently ‘real life’ these days. But if the novelists art is about language, and ultimately the communication of this language to his reader, Mick reflects on how he used to read the Beano as a child “Biff! Bam! Kerrzang! How I laughed” he says. This is not just another case of the kind of regression we see in other stories from the adult characters, but rather an example of how those onomatopoeic words are exactly that – words without meaning, yet they are the only ones that can or rather could invoke a genuine reaction in Mick, where words like ‘tragedy’ cannot.

Where his prose is not the overly figurative kind seen in his contemporaries, he constantly seems to be trying to understand the limits of language in the text; there are the accents, the double entrendre’s and Freudian slips , and playing with the sounds of words (the futility of war in ‘Fusili’, or is it the Fusility of war?). The pun might be the cheapest form of a joke, but it’s has the ability to immediately change the meaning of one word into another, and Swift is at home with it. Swift’s attempts at regional  accents do (maybe a slight Yorkshire bias here) sometimes descend into that Dickensian mawkishness. But again, this could just be playing with limits of language, because the stories are not just stories as shown in ‘Haematology’, or the pure dialogue of ‘Mrs Kaminski’.

But one only needs to read the epitaph from Laurence Sterne at the start (Lord, still, appropriately censored out); indeed, what is all about? Swift doesn’t deliver answers and doesn’t expect to. Instead all we can do is reflect and remember, and ultimately fictionalise like the person says at the end of ‘England’ – “He really knew, he thought, as brought his car to a halt again, nothing about it all.”

England And Other Stories  (274pp) by Graham Swift is out now, published by Simon & Schuster (Hardback: £16.99 ). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

Problems with Pronouns

Never has the landscape, on which you and I inhabit, looked so rocky and unsettled in this beleaguering land. Never has it’s national identity been so  confused and split since the Thatcher era. As if rising over yonder on a sturdy steed finally come UKIP, the saviors for all Brits, promising to make Britain Great again.

Slightly unfair may be, because that is what all the parties ultimately aim to do. Offsetting and reflecting this though,  is a series of issues regarding the identity of Britain and the British, and consequently will boil down to your own subjectivity. Lets for a start, Scotland; this issue has all sides of the political strata pledging their allegiances to the stay or go camp. No wonder patriots are so worried to see Scotland go, with this once great empire, now nothing but an annoying younger brother to the big old neoliberal land of America. This is slightly ironic given the New York Times has published an article saying that the irony in Britain wanting to leave Europe is that it has become more European. What is Britain without Scotland? England and Wales which looks pathetically small compared to it’s all old Empire status. There is still the commonwealth though, which in all reality is just an excuse for the Queen to get out of the house.

On a larger scale, is Europe. In trying to persuade Scotland to stay, parties are considering whether they want to stay in Europe. There is a lovely irony to all this that no matter how much Britain stays or goes in whatever union or constitution, it will remain locked in it’s geographical location, with it’s bordered lands. Indeed  it is this sovereignty and dividing lines are where the problems manifest . This of course is where UKIP come in, who have seen their popularity rising, and for a party that is so vehemently opposed to Europe, it seems to enjoy spending it’s time in it’s parliament. I don’t understand Europe, and how it’s laws work, and what it’s effect on Britain is, so I struggle to understand how the majority of the nation think they know how Europe works and would be able to judge so at a referendum. UKIP and other Europe nay-sayers direct their rhetoric towards the fact that our laws are mostly constituted  in Europe or that the European Union is just a bunch of bureaucrats. Is that not what our Government is? Are we honestly going to try and depict and glorify our own politicians as a bunch of down-to-earth humanists who understand our concerns, or are at least trying to and that’s why they want to pull out of Europe?

The main thrust of their argument though is not issues of paperwork, it’s a historical one, centuries old. It’s a desperate clinging onto the fact that once Britain was a great imperialistic world power, and still could be one, albeit imperilisation s likely to work on a lot more implicit terms, but what is the point of the army? The British Empire might be dead but it’s values aren’t. Look over to  Putin and his invasion of Ukraine; he is only being condemned by leaders because he threatens to become what the rest of the leaders condemning him are – world figures who want to police the world and dominate it. The main thrust though of these issues comes down to what UKIP is so unafraid of exposing: that any other nationality apart from Britain that threatens to challenge  it’s archaic view of Britishness.

It’s exemplified on a much more domestic level with the furor over the emergence that several well known food chains either use Halal or are switching to Halal meat (Pizza Express the former, Subway the latter). Fostered by the right wing press like the Express and the Mail (who else), it has generated fevered nationalist rhetoric that this is an example of Islamist ideology creeping into the shores of Britain, surely playing into the widening arms of UKIP who are ready to embrace you in their cosy nationalism.

Is it really Islamist ideology, or is it more likely down to the fact that these food chains need to widen their market share to cater for all types, to  be able sell more to more people, as it now emerges that more companies are remaining subversive about using Halal meat. And no wonder. But whilst the debate is largely depressing because of it’s racial connotations, what is also, perhaps more depressing, is that how people feel so betrayed by these companies because of their use of halal meat. People write on social media sites how they are ‘boycotting’ Subway, not out of a rejection of their unethical capitalist ideology that obliterates local, green alternatives for the global demand and supply, but an ill-conceived conviction that Subway is succumbing to Islamist ideology. It is just, as usual,  what has been channelled into them via outlets like The Mail, that their/your cherished Britain  is undergoing an Islamist, foreign invasion..

When it comes down to it though, it’s not Subway succumbing to Islam: are we suggesting that a huge corporate, global giant like Subway could be seen giving into Islamic demands ? No, it’s the agenda to make more, and sell more to more people. Did rafts of Muslims take to social networking sites to protest they were not buying at Subway unless they sold halal meat? The depressing reality is that rather than see this as evidence that Subway wants to open up an outlet, two even, on every high street in Britain, diminishing and destroying the chance of any kind of local investment and competition that we apparently all so desperately want to see again, it’s rather seen as the fact that there is going to be, not a Subway on every high street, but a mosque. They’re not that different when you look at it; both have you believing in their holiness, and like a mosque, Subway would happily have you coming to their services five times a day, but at least the mosque is honest about this and does not reap you of every penny in a false, non-nutritional product.

Everybody wants homegrown. The mass companies where we buy our products distort and create the lie that we’re buying British, you’re buying more than a product; we can be safe in the knowledge that buying this beef, or this carrot with it’s small Union Jack on it’s packaging that it has come from some cherished field in Blighty. Do you feel better for that, buying this from your local supermarket, that relative monolith compared to the extortionate butcher’s or greengrocers? And why would you go to the local butchers or greengrocer, that is if you still have one on your high street, if you live in a comfortable middle class area, when they’re so expensive compared to the supermarket.

Another issue that bubbles away, that initially seems unrelated but can  exemplify a few absurdities, is be found from that other, crazy, ‘working-man’s’ game – football. With the World Cup impending, England’s chances of success look so remote that even the press, where they’re usually generating a frenzy of England’s chances (this year! this year!) are going a long with the common consensus that they are not even assured of exiting the group stage. And the reason for this? There are not enough – that word again – home-grown English players playing in it’s top league, the Premier League. It’s almost universally agreed that the Premier League is the most exciting league in the world, but this does not translate into success, and never has done. That is the truth; there are not enough high quality English players playing in the highest quality league in the world for England to win a World Cup; there are too many foreign players that impede the chances of English exposure. These clubs are of course mostly owned by rich, foreign owners who view football teams and players as commodities and assets. But the fans and the spectators in all this have no choice but  to desire and ultimately expect immediate success, like they want success for their national team, and are toys to their teams prevailing need for more capital to make this happen. Success at the domestic level usually translates into investing in the best players world wide, and it’s finally coming into realisation that the two cannot go hand in hand.

Thankfully this is not being blamed on Islamist ideology, although xenophobia  threatens to permeate the debate. The term home-grown, when applied to a human, is so inferring of the fact that they belong to a certain land and location, that their bones and blood came from the land they were born in. And there is the greatest lesson; it’s not the people at the bottom, like the fans who want their team to be the best in the land, like there are those who want their meat killed in a certain way, but it’s those at the top who generate the money and the services who need to keep generating the money and the services by whatever means, so they need as many people spending as much money as possible to keep generating their lies and pretensions, to stop the bubble from bursting. Something comes a long though,that threatens these poor consumers to stop them buying into the dream and the illusion, and this hurts the consumer, this piercing insight to what’s really happening and they can’t handle it, and as has been shown, it turns to hate to another unwitting toy of the market, whilst those at the top, have to go back to the drawing board and reconfigure their tactics.

So, if all this is  question of honesty, UKIP probably are the most ‘honest party’; for example when Nigel Farage says they do not oppose immigration, in the strict sense they don’t,  because they promote privatisation (of the NHS for example) , and capitalism is reliant on migration and a mobile labor pool. But they want what is best for British people whoever they are, which could mean you, yes you. We’re led to believe  dividing lines and borders are set in stone, but as is clear, they’re easily moved when they need to be.