I still occasionally come across people who proclaim themselves to be ‘on the right economically, but on the left socially’. Such people, who wring their hands at the spectacle of homelessness while supporting the whole-scale destruction of public housing, occupy the category of those who, to borrow a phrase I can’t track down, welcome the means but bemoan the ends. Tellingly, it’s never the other way round: no one is ever ‘on the right socially, but on the left economically’. Those who believe in enforced inequality, rule by unaccountable elites, the denial of public services, etc, recognise laissez-faire economics as the perfect tool to realise their nefarious goals. That’s what being on the right is all about.
Speaking of tools, here’s another: Russia Today, and all who sail in it: Sam Delaney, Max Keiser, Jonathan Pie, the former journalists formerly known as John Pilger and Glenn Greenwald, the failed politician George “oh ffs” Galloway, the unashamedly far-right cheerleader Neil Clark, the ongoing train wreck of Craig Murray’s attempts at self-promotion at any cost, and so, so many others. With its puerile conspiratorial nonsense mixed in with the odd morsel of anti-neoliberal critique, RT is essentially Fox News for people with a Noam Chomsky book (which they’ve never actually read) in pride position on their bookshelf, nestled between the dog-eared copy of ‘Da Vinci Code’ and a pristine edition of ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’.
Those ‘radicals’ who shared lazy, cynical fake news memes against Hillary Clinton and argued that the two were equatable are the true owners of this supremely dismal, unprecedentedly depressing, unavoidably despair-ridden historical moment. They also own Orbán, Salvini and every other lifelong racist scumbag fondling the reigns of actual political power. When Sean Hannity burbles on (inanely, but by no means inconsequentially) about the “Deep State Crime Family“, that’s their worldview on display in all its subversive sophistication. When any journalist with a moment to spare glances into a Jeremy Corbyn Facebook group and see countless links to videos expounding the hidden truth about Soros, the Rothschilds and that evil Mr Fagin, that’s the result of hard work done by millions of people who thought they were somewhere on the left, only to find they had become deeply embedded into a global movement led by some of the very worst people on earth, that their perspective had been coloured, colonised and co-opted by the far-right.
Of course, there’s always sunken cost theory to explain why, when people (who also happen to inhabit a bubble of outright misinformation) have invested so much into their propagation of an ideological viewpoint, they can’t simply back out and instead seek out information which demands a nuanced understanding and which may force them to question their faith in the official unofficial narrative. I have long argued that the degree of cognitive dissonance necessary to function in an age of both environmental collapse and hyper-consumerism suggests that our civilisation is by and large psychotic. But what self-respecting creature with even the minimum amount of conscience and mental capacity can nod sagely as sneering government officials trot our their standard denials of chemical attacks, according to a script seemingly composed by a particularly obnoxious and sadistic six-year-old bully? Of course, facilitating and then dismissing the gassing of civilians isn’t merely naughty, it’s absolutely evil. Anyone who feels a kneejerk urge to believe the denials of Assad and his Russian sponsors deserves to have their nose tested in much the same manner: a not-so-gentle tap in the middle of the face with a distinctly non-medical hammer.
So do I defend the imminent “allied” airstrikes? It’s certainly not wise for the British or French Governments to join a coalition led by a witless psychopath (aptly described as an “evil Forrest Gump“) who will do literally anything to hang onto the power he should never in a million years have been granted. But I’m not going to join any demonstrations against it, joining hands with all manner of Wikileaks apologists, raising my voice for peace with useless idiots like Brian Eno and other public “intellectuals” who can’t even tell the difference between left and right. While Putin is a prick, and Trump his arsehole, Assange is the perineum that runs between the two. Maybe that’s why he (reportedly) stinks so very badly. (It’s not streaming internet and a laptop he needs, but running water and some shower gel.)
Here are two useful analogies which may, by some miracle, make some sort of impact on the conspiracy-addled brains of those who, without meaning to, have become foot soldiers in an army of arseholes and pricks. There was once a Korean couple who were addicted to a computer game in which they brought up a baby. The got the highest-ever score in the game: their infant was well-fed and more than adequately cared-for. They also had another baby, an offline one, which died of neglect in the most horrifying circumstances. The internet is, in essence, a tremendously compelling form of entertainment, but the consequences of all that fun – imagine online trolling and mischievous meming as the computer game, democracy and human rights as the dead baby – are unavoidably catastrophic.
In another time and place, in Britain during the Cold War, the far-left sect known as the Socialist Worker’s Party used the slogan ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism’. We’re a long way from the latter, and heading in exactly the wrong direction (btw, if you happen to be in the SWP: the Brexit stage door led not to the left, but to the far right). If you still think that Putin is some sort of master strategist/anti-imperialist hero, remember that it was very much his genius idea to put Trump in the White House in the first place. For those who made excuses for Russia’s puppitry, a moment’s honest reflection would have revealed that one of the greatest risks was that Trump’s inevitably pathetic and hamfisted attempts to ‘prove’ that he wasn’t a mere marionette would lead to a catastrophe even worse (get this!) than seeing a woman enter the White House (do tell us again the one about how Hillary Clinton and the “Deep State” were secretly planning to start a world war – I could do with a fucking laugh). Hence, if Putin’s your man (and RT’s your news source of choice), Trump’s your boy (and Sean Hannity is among your allies). You’re on the side of both Washington and Moscow, and this is very much your nuclear war. Cheers, pricks.
Jeremy Corbyn’s reputation for modesty might not survive revelations about his habit of joining pro-Jeremy Corbyn groups on Facebook. The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman calls such groups ‘anti-semitic’, which, although it is a blatant misrepresentation, does contain a possibly unwitting smidgen of truth.
I’ve long been a member of numerous pro-Corbyn groups and I have seen anti-semitic material posted there. The better-organised ones remove it once warned, but in some such groups memes and videos blaming cabals of prominent Jewish people for the world’s problems are rife and widely approved of. Such material mostly derives from the noxious swamp of Sputnik, Russia Today, and fake news websites which push what to a cursory scroller may look like nothing more than an anti-neoliberal elite agenda, but a closer inspection quickly identifies the same old tropes: Soros, the Rothschilds, the shady hook-nosed NWO, etc. The memes in question aren’t coming from the Left, in the sense that they didn’t originate there, but they do often meet with a depressingly positive reaction.
Nonetheless, there’s something both sly and unfair about (for example) Suzanne Moore’s comment that Corbyn himself is ‘not an anti-semite, but…‘. Similarly, Hadley Freeman’s List of evidence of Corbyn’s anti-semitist connections is a pretty empty one unless you consider all attempts to talk to groups representing Palestinians as beyond the Green Line. At least Freeman doesn’t mention Israel, unlike the spokesman for the British Board of Deputies the guy on Radio 4 two days ago, who just couldn’t stop himself. There are, to borrow a phrase, pockets within those groups which officially represent the Jewish community (often, as it were, the top pockets) which instinctively paint all criticism of Israel as anti-semitic. Their ongoing prominence in this debate muddies the waters just as much as those who are ready to shout down all talk of left-wing anti-semitism as a media plot.
I don’t doubt that many of the people on the protests outside Parliament were sincere in their concerns. The Brick Lane mural was absurdly anti-semitic, and Corbyn’s approval of it can’t be dismissed. (Unless, that is, we adopt a puerile definition of free speech, of which more later.) In downplaying the incident Aaron Bastani ignores the fact that if a prominent Tory or Ukip politician had ‘liked’ the same image, we would all be screaming from the rooftops, as we would if a Conservative candidate had shared the sort of Holocaust denial material posted by Alan Bull. Anyone who doesn’t recognise such blatant anti-semitism really shouldn’t be spouting off about the subject. As others have pointed out, there is something about Corbyn’s anti-elite populism which allows such tropes to fester, and the Left has a duty to address this.
The contemporary far-right is keen to exploit ambiguities and confusion among (nominally) progressive radicals in order to draw them towards its own ideas. As this article details, it sees satire as a tool for generating controversies and bringing non- and even anti-fascists into its orbit. As it happens, it wasn’t a deliberate ploy that brought me into its online sphere of influence, but it was a comedian who transported me there. On his (very) hit-and-miss podcast, Russell Brand recently interviewed the new daddy-waddy figure of the far-right, Jordan Peterson. I listened to the first two minutes, until it rapidly became clear that Brand’s deeply irritating habit of doing no research whatsoever meant that he was not going to be able to challenge or even to see through Peterson’s specious pseudo-intellectual rhetoric. Those two minutes were a rich seam for the far-right, because ever since then well over 50% of the videos Youtube has suggested to me feature Peterson ‘crushing’ his liberal debating opponents from Noam Chomsky to (I seem to recall) Mahatma Ghandi. If I hadn’t read certain articles alerting me to Peterson’s pernicious influence and detailing his intellectual fraudulence, I might be inclined to listen.
A related episode involved two more British comedians: Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel. Both tweeted in favour of the ‘free speech’ of a man called Mark Meechan (aka ‘Count Dankula’), seemingly unaware he is not a mere ‘comedian’, but a far-right activist. They were duped, pulled through a loophole created by widespread confusion about the difference between the right to privately express hateful ideas and using/abusing privately-owned public platforms to do so. A further example of ‘anti-establishment’ satire being used to promote deeply reactionary ideas is the character Jonathan Pie, whose material is co-written by a member of the far-right cult Spiked. Spiked’s ‘contrarian’ dogma involves total freedom for the far-right and active censure for anyone who opposes it.
If the Left is finding that some of its pockets contain noxious ideas, there’s no mystery as to who is placing them there, and how. Emptying those pockets out involves total intolerance of nazis and anti-semites and their ideas, and extreme vigilance for anyone seeking to use the Left’s own values to undermine it. Anyone posting in notionally left-wing forum about Soros and the Rothschilds, etc is either very naive or outright evil, and those who use a dishonest and self-serving notion of ‘free speech’ as a tool to smuggle in far-right ideas should be immediately exposed and, to borrow a phrase from the far-right, sent back to where they came from.
Our 13-month-old daughter has developed a new screech which is not just far louder and more grating than anything she’s previously produced, but actually more unpleasant than any noise heard in the universe since at least the Big Bang. Although it’s incredibly upsetting to be exposed to her it’s just her way of remarking that she’s feeling a little peckish, could do with a sip of the old H20, has done yet another poop or wouldn’t mind a bit of a nap. She has had a challenging few weeks during which we’ve moved back from Italy, she’s started nursery and her molars have started to erupt. Plus, over the last few days, thankfully unbeknownst to her, a gang of fascist thugs have moved perilously close to power in her homeland, something which has, whether we like it or not, put her parents’ nerves on edge.
How do we deal with her outbursts of nerve-shredding fury? By giving her exactly what she seems to want: either lots and lots of affection, a fresh nappy, chunk after chunk of banana-wana until she finally stops pointing in the vague direction of the fruit bowl, or by insisting as tenderly as possible that she curl up with her favourite cuddly toys in her sleepy-deepy placey-wacey. As much as she seems to want us to, we never respond with expressions of frustration or impatience; as hard as it gets, despite all the apparent provocation, we accept that she has no understanding of the causes or consequences of her tantrums, and treat her accordingly. She is, after all, just a confused, helpless being in a frightening universe with no other means of articulating her most basic needs, and we are, after all, the only family she has.
As for dealing with fascists, well that’s different, obviously. A combination of physical violence and public humiliation is probably the best bet. They’re not babies, fffs.
The results of the Italian parliamentary election are depressing not just to those of us with a progressive mindset but also to anyone who values democracy over violence as a means of governing human societies. The most likely Prime Minister is Matteo Salvini, an explicit apologist for racist terrorism*, as his party is the largest in a (ahem) ‘centre-right’ alliance led by the media oligarch, disqualified fraudster and convicted pedophile/mummified megalomaniac ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi. The largest single party is the populist 5 Star Movement, which has declared it will not enter a coalition. However, given that the notoriously incoherent organisation is led by the (also disqualified) multi-millionaire trickster/friend of Farage Beppe Grillo, who is on record as indifferent to fascism, there’s is a distinct chance that it will hoist the far-right into power.
Luckily the best minds (well, me) have identified a potential escape route out of this nightmare. It starts from the realisation that, despite its appalling result, the governing Democratic Party (PD) still got more votes than Berlusconi’s Forza Italia or whatever it’s called this fortnight. The Left got more support than the Right and would easily win a possible post-horsetrading second round of the election in a couple of months, providing three conditions were met:
- Salvini and the other fascist leaders will have to be physically eradicated. Italy has both a proud tradition of doing this, and an explicitly anti-fascist constitution. Nobody since 1945 can pretend they don’t know what fascists are, and that it is necessary to use all means necessary to eliminate them. An amendment to the Constitution could then introduce a 100% electoral threshold preventing the political participation of such groups. Then there are the Lega’s fellow travellers in the Nazi groups Casapound and Forza Nuova (last seen posting threatening messages on their front doors of their political opponents, a la the Mexican narco gangs with which they have so much in common). According to this ‘hey, let me introduce you to my new best friends in the Casapound’ article in the Guardian, there are hundreds of thousands of (almost exclusively male, overwhelmingly filgi di papà) members of such groups. That’s frightening, but their numbers can be used against them. Simply pack hundreds of them at a time onto rickety dinghies with a maximum capacity of 12 persons (including crew) and push them out into the Mediterranean. Perhaps their alt-right comrades could rescue them when the inevitable happen, and then carry them off to Libya where they would quickly find they actually have rather a lot in common with Isis. Then, and only then, we could, as the Casapound has proposed, bomb Libya.
- The voting age in Italy is 18. As is the case elsewhere, it is believed that by that age citizens have reached a sufficient level of maturity and responsibility to make considered decisions about how society is run. However, in these elections millions of people did not make a mature and responsible voting choice. They voted instead for an inchoate ‘anti-political’ political party led by a comedian and convicted drink-driver who uses his blog to spread buffale (fake news) about vaccines, immigrants and much more besides. The anarchist collective Wu Ming several years ago nailed Grillo’s role perfectly. His cult is based around ‘a chaotic programme where neoliberal and anti-neoliberal, centralist and federalist, libertarian and authoritarian ideas coexist’. It feeds parasitically on genuine anger about austerity, and has held back more radical forces such that Italy had no equivalent to the Spanish indignados or the Occupy movement. Its vacuity and naivety has meant that it has acted as a placeholder for the fascists, and in 2018 no one who voted for it could have done so in the belief that its leaders’ promise not to enter a coalition with anyone including the far-right was sincere.
Unless, that is, they lacked a basic political education, and had developed their understanding of the world on social media, never acquiring the mature relationship with serious adult media which is essential to basic citizenship. Now, as it happens, the exam which all Italians (at least those who finish school) take at 18 is called the Maturità. It seems obvious to me that M5S voters, with their puerile understanding of the world, would benefit from the introduction of a compulsory reschooling phase** during which their would obtain an adequate appreciation for the importance of democracy and their responsibility for perpetuating it. Once they had completed such a course of study, their right to vote should be restored, provided that they take a legally-binding oath to read an actual newspaper at least twice every five years.
- The third thing that would reverse the tide of shit that has overrun Italian politics is to ban anyone with the name Renzi from taking part in election for a period of at least 10,000 years. The same goes for anyone (including Gentiloni) who thinks that half-heartedly repeating a neoliberal mantra of ‘crescita, crescita, crescita’ (‘growth, growth, growth’) as if they were praying for rain is a meaningful response to a world in turmoil. Their replacements could – anzi, must – explore new and radical ideas: degrowth, a universal basic income, and much more. They could even start to face up the challenges of a collapsing climate***. This would be far better than allowing the Left to be constantly hijacked by egomaniacs much more concerned with their own power than improving society. It would mean that the the intellectual vacuum inside the PD (of which the M5S’s vapidity is a contorted and witless pastiche) could be filled with the ideas and spirit necessary to combat the simplistic prescriptions of the fascists. What will in reality happen, of course, is that (although concerted pressure from further left will hopefully have a meaningful influence) the PD will move in a more avowedly anti-immigrant direction. In the words of W-B. Yeats, “i migliori perdono ogni convinzione, mentre i peggiori/ sono pieni di appassionata intensità”. A more inspiring quote for today comes from an anonymous source: “L’unico fascista buono è il fascista morto”.
*The BBC’s Italy correspondent on this morning’s Radio 4’s Today Programme chose to refer to the Lega as an ‘anti-illegal immigrant party’, conveniently omitting to mention that in the attack in Macerata the racist terrorist didn’t ask for the documents of the Africans he tried very hard to shoot dead. Thus did a BBC journalist (whose name I didn’t catch) out himself as a fascist and therefore a terrorist sympathiser. Of course, the Macerata attack didn’t draw nearly as much attention in international and on social media as it would have if had the victims had been white. Maybe, given the almost-universal level of indifference to their fate, #siamotuttisalvini should have been trending worldwide.
** There is irony in the fact that so many M5S supporters are teachers. Well, “teachers”.
***Only joking. That would be of course be ‘political suicide’. Much easier instead to blame outsiders for changing weather patterns and failing crops. Human societies have been doing that for thousands of years.
Roy Porter points out in the very first sentence of ‘London: A Social History’ that London is ‘not the eternal city’. Thus it is distinct from Rome, where I and my family have been living for the last 18 months or so. London won’t even be in the EU in a year’s time*, which might make it appear odd that someone (me) who spent the few weeks after the Brexit vote listening to this on repeat is actually quite pleased to be back in the UK capital. To its credit, my home country is not (unlike Italy) on the verge of electing a mummified pedophile oligarch hand in hand with two actual fascists/supporters of racist terrorism to political power, but given the seemingly unstoppable influence of this walking answer to the question what-might-a-British-equivalent-of-Hitler-have-been-like?, the March on London can’t be too far off.
Others have pointed out the incongruous but not quite coincidental fact that many of the main Brexit conspirators (Hannan, Carswell, Banks, etc) have colonial origins. They are, after a fashion, foreigners, resentful outsiders determined to destroy what they’ve never understood (making them, in that sense, not all that different from Isis). They’re presumably sick of being asked by taxi drivers puzzled by their obvious distaste for and ignorance of their own culture, ‘Where are you actually from, guv?’.
Although many Londoners are (rightly) proud that it didn’t vote to excommunicate itself from the EU, it is where the process is being orchestrated from (however haphazardly), and a quick peek beneath the surface of recent British political history reveals the deep hydraulic fractures which caused the fissure: the burning resentment occasioned by the illegal War in Iraq, nearly a decade of ideologically-inspired austerity, and continuous agitation and scapegoating by the xenophobic hard-right of the Tory Party. The ideology espoused by the Brexiters (a deregulatory Year Zero, back to the good old days before the godawful NHS and the horrors of the Welfare State, to the time when we could still sell slaves, opium and cupcakes to whoever we damn well chose) is actually not too far off the policies put into practise over the last eight years; they just want to go so much faster.
One wonders how Daniel Blake would have voted had he still/ever been alive. The notion that the referendum represented a peasant’s revolt even though it was directed and armed by the lords of the manor is still depressingly, but understandably, prevalent. The ruling class was split, and some of its most visible representatives were pushing the notion that the status quo is essentially fair and just. This is a global problem, because regardless of the causes, the way things are is not the way they should be. For all their undoubtedly sincere commitment to liberal principles, the economic neoliberalism of Macron and Merkel is not going to protect us from evil forces pushing easy (and evermore violent) solutions. Anyone still wondering how Brexit came about is advised to have even the slightest contact with Jobcentre Plus. I called them the other day on the mistaken understanding that they could provide me with an apparently-essential piece of paper with my NI number on it, and received a salutary lesson in the mixture of infuriating condescension (“did you know that you could look at our website?!” repeated ad infinitum) and callous indifference (“If you haven’t received a payment due to you, why don’t you wait for a few more days?”) to which society’s most needy are systematically subjected to.
Many argue that London is immune to and not responsible for all this cruelty and chaos. London isn’t really the UK, it’s tempting to think, or at least hope. It’s a successful, global city – just look at all those who want to own property here! Well, yes, that’s all very nice for those who can afford it. As for those who were born in London and/or have spent decades of their lives here…well, maybe they were never really Londoners, or at least don’t deserved such a hallowed status. To look for a potential silver lining in the mountain of shit to be dumped on us over the coming years, perhaps London will become less attractive to those who have no actual interest in living here, but do possess an apparently unrestrainable desire to make lots of money by depriving those who do of floors, walls and ceilings; maybe all those bankers will piss off and make the city more equitable and affordable. Conversely, it may be that those bankers, thanks to the finance industry’s insistence that the government not do a full Jim Jones, save us from the worst of Brexit.
So, clearly we didn’t move back to London out of any sense of political optimism. No one quite knows quite what effect the impending changes will have, least of all those who are (ahem) ‘planning’ them. Nobody, that is, who’s never watched ‘Children of Men’ or seen the government’s secret economic projections. My former area of employment (English as a Foreign Language) seems to have already collapsed in anticipation. How whatever-is-going-to-happen will affect higher education is anyone’s guess. Very badly, at a rough estimate, at least for those who are trying against all the odds to do meaningful jobs in an increasingly absurd environment. Meanwhile, the privatisation of the state school system continues apace; my own most immediate work prospects seems to involve being part of that very process.
According to my honoured neighbour Iain Sinclair, one must belong to a place before writing about it. Do I belong in London? After all, it’s not my hometown, nor that of my wife, although she does hold a British passport and has just got a new job which makes our lives here viable. I’ve come to live in London twice before, once for a disappointing post-university stint in the dim light of which I exiled myself in Dublin, Lisbon, Dalian and Madrid for a total of twelve years. I returned in 2006, sort of by default, always feeling a little like an outsider. If I wanted to be poetic, I could make out that the interim period between Mexico City, Bangkok and Rome was a Marco Polo-style learning trajectory, allowing me to reflect on issues of inequality, gentrification, immigration, belonging, centrality and my own place and role in the world.
I’m happy to admit that right now I feel excited to be here, to the point that it feels a little like moving here for the first time. Partly as a result of having lived elsewhere, knowing something of the place, having time to explore, and reading (after several failed attempts) Sinclair’s lengthy, rambling, and often deeply frustrating tome about Hackney, I feel oddly cheerful about being back in the same city as both him and, er, David Davies. Compared to Rome, the buses here run regularly and on time (any hopes that Salvini will do the same for the trains are probably moot); just like in Rome, there are abundant museums and galleries, but they are free to enter. All of these things are, of course, contingent, and very much under threat. Trump’s equivalents in the UK will try to destroy all that cannot be readily converted into shareholder value: frack under our houses, privatise our schools, monetise our future ailments caused by the rolling deregulation of everything that makes life livable.
But for the time being, the cultural and social possibilities within close range of our flat are endless. There are bookshops just metres away from my door which seem designed for my particular sensibilities. Browsing their latest additions I feel that they’ve read my mind – until, that is, I realise that they’ve written it. I’ve been primed, by the Guardian and the LRB, to want to read certain kinds of books, and thus to buy more than I could ever hope to actually get through. I’m not merely the object of marketing pressures, my tastes are the product of factories of desire. In my case, it’s books rather than branded sportswear which make me most likely, if I were to be denied them by cruel and capricious circumstance, to hurl bricks at shop windows. Zygmunt Bauman categorised those involved in the London Riots of 2011 as ‘frustrated consumers’; perhaps my role in London is merely that of a consumer, of culture, of property, of space and time. I’m free, for the time being, to be a tourist in my ‘own’ city.
In terms of being productive, previous generations of Italian emigrants were restricted in their career choices to the purchase of a barrel organ and a dancing monkey (which is actually not too far from what I was reduced to in Rome, entertaining children under the pretence of preparing them for an exam that they didn’t see the point of). In London the available jobs in education are of a not dissimilar nature, but at least I’m more familiar with the territory and the language and therefore more likely to bite back if poked with a stick. A further irony of Brexit is that the UK’s innovations in the forms of privatisation have been copied across the continent – it was after all a UK qualification that I was pushing in Rome. Having spent years studiously avoiding learning too much about the mess of academies, grant-maintained, faith schools, and so on, I’ll soon be in the midst of it all. Many schools are, largely as a result of PFI, struggling to survive, and surely shouldn’t be spending as much as they do on supply teachers, but what the hey, I need a job. What the Tories said about Labour was, in a twisted way, true – the amount they spent on essential infrastructure was irresponsible (although it wasn’t the reason for the bailout of the banks), only insofar as it was based on borrowing from the ‘private sector’ at unsustainable rates – a policy which was started and has been continued by the Tories. Schools, hospitals, and entire councils are now being pushed into bankruptcy as a direct result of the ‘financial innovative’ pyramid schemes run by loan sharks far too powerful to threaten.
And yet, despite all these hazards and hypocrisies, and without wanting to sound like Nigel Farage complaining about people speaking foreign on trains language it is pleasant, after a couple of years being an obvious outsider and struggling with self-consciousness every time I open my mouth, to be immersed in my ‘own’ language again. It’s also enjoyable to hear and be able to identify a range of accents and languages, especially as I move around London, from Turkey, Jamaica, Bangladesh, Nigeria. I benefit from and treasure this diversity. (You can’t get jolloff rice in Rome…) Reflecting on this, and on how the things I most enjoy about cities (diversity, multiculturalism) are those that inspire rage attacks in those with willfully provincial attitudes gives me a sense of…pride? That is, I would argue, a problematic term.
Although I wouldn’t want to live elsewhere in the UK, I do suffer from that metropolitan arrogance and its reverse, a certain chippy northerness. The notion (mooted on social media post-referendum) that London should ‘declare independence’ from the rest of the UK displays a willful ignorance of how the levels of infrastructural investment spent and the political choices made in the capital have systematically worsened the life-chances of the rest of the country. If London is more diverse and culturally richer, it’s partly because it can afford to be. So many want to come and live here even though so many others are being or have been forced to leave. Such thoughts may contribute, sooner or later, to a change in my mood; I am, after all, in a honeymoon period – any more contact with Richard Branson’s megalomania, whether taking a train back up north, sorting out the internet (Murdoch’s megalomania or Branson’s? What a choice!) or having a kidney removed will renew my antipathy to all that this city and country stand for, and that’s even before the shock doctrine/national suicide of Brexit kicks in.
Certainly, few writers would view the current state of London as a reason for cheerfulness. Iain Sinclair’s latest book is called ‘The Last London’, whose pessimistic prognosis that the city’s future has little to do with the more laudable or interesting aspects of its past is not new, even in the recent past – China Mieville published an essay called ‘London’s Overthrow‘ in 2012. Sinclair implies that the truth of Will Self’s observation that most people live on the tube map of London rather than in the city per se has become even more stark in an age where so many experience the city at a distance, floating above it on their devices, with little regard for its intimate histories or deeper geographies. he also suggests that when the pace of turnover of buildings and people reaches a certain critical mass, when so many who have made their lives here – no matter where they were born – are being forced to leave or hanging on under immense pressure, the notion that the city continues to be the same place in any meaningful sense is problematic. To live here and enjoy doing so, to see oneself as a ‘Londoner’ in such a context involves being riven by contradictions, particularly when one’s very presence usurps what was there before. On Google Streetview I can, from the comfort of our brand new building, take a walk down the street below as it was eight years ago when it was a council block awaiting demolition, before, in the same breath, watching a (moving and enraging) film made by a local artist documenting the subsequent destruction of an entire way of life. (I could then, also on my laptop, pontificate online about cities as sites of psychic energy, haunted places, without reflecting too deeply on the implications.)
The area we live in is, truth be told, an emblematic example of gentrification. A few years ago, back when I was living in the considerably less cool environs of Stratford, I joined a walking tour called ‘Keep Hackney Crap’, which was the tongue-in-cheek response of a group of local housing activists of the local mayor, who had publicly accused those critical of his council’s ‘regeneration’ schemes of defeatist thinking. After we’d been led from horror to horror, from entire burnt out rows of houses to million pound developments built on the crushed remains of 1960s developments with nary a concern for the fate of those who used to live there, we ended up at Broadway Market, sneering at the yuppie scum sipping surreally expensive lattes and absurdly overpriced almond croissants. The thought struck me that were I not to be spending Saturday morning learning about inequality, I’d very much have liked to be sitting in one of those very cafes reading about it in The Guardian. Regardless of how expensive and exclusive they are, the hipster cafes which characterise Hackney nowadays are much nicer than the fried chicken places they replaced. Nevertheless, anyone tempted to conclude that gentrification is therefore natural or harmless try to see how many non-white faces there are around Columbia Road market on a Sunday morning, or how many truly local people, ie from the neighbouring estates, use the reservoir up at Manor House. Social cleansing as practised in London has a very powerful inbuilt element of racism which is not disguised by the promoters of luxury apartment developments remembering to photoshop the odd black face on their advertising billboards for their (and our) neoliberalised dreamworlds.
Of course, other forms of exclusion and violence are less insidious, more direct and thus easier to recognise and condemn. The attacks that took place in 2017 around Borough Market are a reminder that regardless of wherever they operate Isis/Al Qaeda et al habitually target street markets as a means of causing maximum carnage and thus gaining maximum attention. Of course, it’s easier to attack the poor where they live and shop, to get at physical stalls on actual streets where cash is being exchange for material goods, than it is to reach and damage global circuits of exchange. The word ‘market’ is, after all, a poor metaphor for how the global economy operates. Ridley Road, for example, is a market, whereas the way housing is distributed in London is nothing of the kind. The ‘housing market’ in London has little to do with demand for places to live, but is rather a parasitical trade in a certain asset class which, misleadingly, goes by the same name and happens to involve both bricks and mortar. In a functioning city (London, so often trumpeted as a ‘successful’ city, is certainly not so when it comes to housing), a place to live must be recognised if not as a right then at least something with use value. In London, on the other hand, houses and pubs are being replaced by blocks of empty ‘luxury’ flats, desert city architecture which will never be and never have been inhabited, devoid even of ghosts. Thus, as Sinclair argues, the link between generations is being lost, in return for money which ebbs and flows within global networks encompassing terrorism and crime. Surely a lesson from McMafia must be that the notion of criminal groups including Isis as marginal, outside the global economy, must, by the nature of the way such things operate, be mistaken. It’s integral to how financial hubs such as London operate. Not for nothing did Roberto Saviano name the UK as the most corrupt country in the world, and Brexit is destined (and given the very active involvement of shady tax-dodging financial interests, partly designed) to allow for even more of this particular type of ‘deregulated’ financial activity.
When terrorist attacks have taken place in Western cities, there has been a spate of hashtags called things like #wearelondon. The Museum of London is using that very slogan in his fundraising efforts, and there’s a (quite staggeringly trite) Madness song with the same title. I understand the need of young people in particular to be proud of where they’re from (this Nike advert inspires even me to take a certain pride in lifestyles and scenes I can’t exactly claim any credit for or part in). Nonetheless, when I see such slogans I can’t help feeling a certain cynicism, thinking in particular of those who’ve been priced, burnt or brexited out of the city over the last few years. Should ‘being a Londoner’ be a source of pride nowadays? Or is it rather a badge of unwarranted privilege?
To be proud of something, you have to be part of it in some meaningful way. On previous occasions moving to London, I was desperate to be involved somehow in the nightlife. Thankfully nowadays that’s no longer an issue. Tempting to say it must be better than Rome, but then to be fair we went to Italy to have a baby and only ever left the flat after dark to stock up on emergency nappies. The prospect of returning to London filled my head with fantasies of late nights and favourite drinking haunts. There will be few late nights, but then most of the pubs have shut down in any case. I will only experience a ever-depleting fraction of what this city has to offer, in both a positive and negative sense (I hope I never live through the kinds of migration, housing and work-related horrors described by writers such as Hsiao-Hung Pa, Ben Juddah, and Anna Minton). Nonetheless, our daughter, who sadly so far has shown little interest in exploring the grime haunts of East London, will grow up a Londoner, at least for the foreseeable future. I hope she feels that the city is hers and lucky to live , but not that it belongs to her alone.
It is, of course, a luxury to escape a situation of political discomfort and economic despondency (even if it means jumping onto another rapidly-shrinking iceberg). Regardless of the outrageous limbo in which EU citizens in the UK find themselves, there’s something slightly tasteless about British people discussing where they can escape to after Brexit, especially when you consider how few Syrian refugees the UK has taken in. Few born here are in any physical danger because of Brexit, and maybe instead of looking to carry on our lives elsewhere unhindered by history there’s something more useful, indeed responsible we can do: After all, we will not be not the main victims of Brexit, and in any case the world was not by any means a perfect place before June 23 2016. The lesson for me involves learning to engage, not to be a tourist who’s just here to consume. One aspect of Brexit is that many of us (assume that we) will be shielded from its consequences, just as we’ve been sheltered from the direct impact of austerity to the point where we can condemn those who voted for Brexit without taking due account of the myriad ways in which our life-chances have enabled us to make more responsible and rational political choices. Maybe one way of overcoming our anxieties about our own fates is to join forces with those for whom complacency is another manifestation of privilege.
*Although I suspect that now they realise that Brexit is basically impossible, the sane members of the Government will try to get a transition period of at least 300 years.
My family and I recently became economic migrants, emigrants from a country (Italy) where there are fewer job prospects and where working conditions are generally atrocious. Brexit notwithstanding, at least in London there are jobs, even some with decent conditions, and the public transport and rubbish collection systems work, while the referendum has certainly revealed an extremely unpleasant undercurrent of hostility to foreigners and the status of many who’ve lived here for decades is still entirely and appallingly uncertain, the UK is not, unlike Italy, right on the verge of electing an electing an explicitly fascist government.
Immigration has been the main theme in the Italian election debate, and the direct involvement of the extremist Northern League in a terrorist attack on Africans has received the full approval of their political sponsor, the mummified, mafioso, pedophile, tax-skiving Bond villain Silvio Berlusconi, a creature whose political views and history of corruption on every conceivable level make Donald Trump seem like Joni Mitchell. There is a chance that not only will Berlusconi’s coalition win most seats, but that he, who, given his multiple criminal convictions is unable to serve in government, will choose Matteo Salvini, the genocidally racist leader of the Lega Nord, as Interior or even Prime Minister.
Who am I to tell Italian how to vote? Well, I lived and worked in Rome until two weeks ago, and my wife and baby daughter were both born in the country. (No one in Rome suggested that my daughter was using up resources destined for those who’d been there longer, or that she should go back where she came from. Che strano.) Many of my friends are Italian and/or still live in Italy, although none of them will have considered voting for the far-right. Or at least I should bloody well hope not. This post is offered in a spirit of solidarity – I know that millions of Italians are out on the streets and arguing with their colleagues, friends and neighbours, trying to provide an antidote to the racist poison broadcast nightly on the TV news. Cioè, spero bene.
Although I spent the first week after the Brexit vote listening to this, I’ve come to accept that, regardless of the catastrophic consequences of their actions, many who voted for it were not expressing affiliation with a far-right agenda. The utter contempt and profound cruelty with which the Cameron/Osborne government treated the bulk of the population generated a predictable response in which many thought they were taking part in a new peasant’s revolt rather than a faux-rebellion led by a former stockbroking fascist backed by billionaires. Thus there are reasons excuses for having voted for Brexit, and even (to a far lesser extent, and although I would happily spit on anyone who actually voted for him) Trump. This is not to make excuses for my own country’s racism, but to stress that there are no excuses for voting for the euphemistically-referred to ‘centrodestra‘ (centre-right, which includes the fascists). As it happens, Farage’s best friend in Italy is not Salvini, but Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement. While Spain had the indignados, Italy had this group of ingenues, a movement based on a deeply naive opposition to not just corruption but politics per se. Grillo is a master manipulator, and egomaniac and a trickster, and the fact that his blog has been called Europe’s main source of fake news is largely responsible for a situation where even people who see themselves as progressive will tell you with a straight face that vaccines cause autism and that George Soros has a plan to flood Europe with Muslim immigrants. As for the movement’s stance on racism, its leaders declaration that ‘Anti-fascism is not my job’ and his welcoming of members of the even-more-nazi-than-the-nazis Casapound movement has been reflected in the party’s response to the attack in Macerata, which lies somewhere between pathetic and complicit.
The country wouldn’t be in this situation if the governing Partito Democratico had any courage or principles, instead of being unhappily married to a half-hearted and discredited form of neoliberalism, one which involves repeating the mantra of crescita (growth) like they’re invoking rainfall. The Left has at last tried to remake itself, but often seemingly on the basis of personal ambition rather than principle. (The smaller left parties have declared they won’t form a coalition with the PD, but hopefully that’s just electoral posturing.) The widely-despised gurning former PM Matteo Renzi’s insistence that he should continue as leader of the ‘Left’ is suicidal – or rather homicidal, given that his political career will no doubt continue. And speaking of murder, there is also his cowardly response to the attempted massacre in Macerata. Few will vote PD with any enthusiasm, but let’s hope that as many as possible do. Anyone who argues that the parties are ‘all the same’ on this occasion could only be speaking out of profound ignorance of undiagnosed sociopathy.
In previous elections over the last year or so I’ve used this space to share translations of phrases which might persuade people with a vote not to vote for the right. It worked well in the case of the French elections (ahem…) and I regret not doing so before the German ones. This time it’s not all that tongue-in-cheek. The possibility of a fascist victory is extremely terrifying and very real. One hopes that the Italian State, given that it has an explicitly anti-fascist constitution, will refuse to allow a government including Salvini and Giorgia Meloni (aka the blonde Traini) to take power; failing that, there will need to be a popular revolt involving extreme civil disobedience to resist such a prospect. In the meantime, anyone who has a vote, wherever they may be, needs to be warned of the consequences of voting for the right. The phrases that follow are not polite ones, but I find it impossible to think of those who might knowingly allow the return of fascism in the country that invented it with anything other than contempt.
- You do know that Italy is a country of emigrants, right? Sai che l’Italia è un paese di emigranti, vero?
- Do you think that countries such as the US and the UK should deport all their Italian immigrants? Credi che paesi come gli Stati Uniti e il Regno Unito dovreberro mandare via tutti i loro immigrati italiani?
- Will you be happy to see the Italian tourist industry collapse overnight? Saresti contento/a di vedere l’industria turistica crollare di un momento al altro?
- Do you think it’s necessary to shoot all foreigners, or just the black ones? Are you planning to go to the Colosseum and murder all the tourists? Pensi che bisogna sparare a tutti gli stranieri, o solo ai neri? Hai intenzione di andare sotto al Colosseo e uccidere tutti i turisti?
- Salvini is a terrorist, Berlusconi is a pedophile. Salvini è un terrorista, Berlusconi è un pedofilo.
- What attracts you most about the Arancini coalition: the terrorism, the pedophilia, the fact that one of its leaders has blonde hair, or just the fanatical racism? Cosa ti piace di piu del cosidetto centrodestra: il terrorismo, la pedofilia, i capelli biondi di una dei leader, opurre solo il razzismo fanatico?
- Would you vote for Isis? Votaresti per Isis?
- Have you perhaps considered voting for a non-fascist party? Che tipo di stronzetto sei, cazzo?!
I’ve never worked for Oxfam, and – although I’m on nodding terms with some of the staff in the extremely well-stocked Dalston outlet – I don’t know anyone who currently does. The moment I realised that most of the concern about Oxfam’s hamfisted attempts to handle allegations of inappropriate behaviour by individuals within its employ was when a local newspaper harrassed volunteers in a local shop, and then tried to present it as part of a cover-up – a ‘wall of silence‘.
It is puerile, salacious and utterly irresponsible to take serious events and present them in a way which will encourage misunderstanding and subsequent condemnation. While Harvey Weinstein was a Hollywood movie producer whose career ended suddenly when it was revealed that he had a sordid history of sexually abusing woman and had made concerted efforts to cover it up, Oxfam is not an individual celebrity. It is a huge organisation operating in all sorts of ways and which sometimes makes mistakes. That is the complex reality behind the prurient headlines and the gossip which follows them.
A moment’s reflection confirms that the suggestion that Oxfam as an individual organisation is engaged in a systematic campaign, at every level from senior management to volunteers in local shops, to abuse vulnerable people within its care would be risible if it didn’t have such deadly consequences. Today it transpires that the Swedish Government is to withdraw its funding from the organisation. Now, I don’t believe the world will be righted through acts of charity – most people who work for NGOs probably don’t believe this either. With some notable but dishonourable exceptions (as in any cause), they are intelligent and sincere people doing the very best they can in a partly haphazard fashion. In Oxfam’s case, of the handful of arseholes who behaved irresponsibly, the procedures to identify and hold them accountable could have been more rigorous and transparent. But that doesn’t make for a very good headline – and as the organisation’s CEO has said, some of those asking questions about what happened, particularly on the BBC, don’t seem especially interested in the answers.
The characters who are doing most to promote this story and spin the original allegations out of all proportion and context do not believe in foreign aid. Sensible people should be able to see through their agenda. It’s likely that the attacks on the work – indeed the very existence – of NGOs will continue. A mostly insincere prurient interest into the machinations of individuals employed by them will almost certainly play a major role in disarming vulnerable people of this weapon employed (admittedly, on their behalf) in the fight for justice and survival. Other lines of attack will emerge, partly through a media which the global far-right – from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Donald Trump – will happily dismiss as ‘fake news’ the moment it turns its attention to its figureheads.
Discrediting NGOs is part of the same act as defunding international organisations, and part of the same ideological sweep which urges the public to disregard the work of serious news organisations. We could also link it to the way in which anger at the financial system and at those who had encouraged its profligacy was rapidly diverted into rage at public representatives, how fury at million dollar bonuses was converted into outrage at hundreds wasted on duck houses. That masterstroke by the defenders of privilege and inequality was one source of the disenchantment with the entire democratic system which led to Brexit. So it’s no accident whatsoever that those who successfully scapegoated the EU and are dead-set on seizing their chance to create a deregulatory Year Zero are gunning for NGOs. As I mentioned above, I don’t believe that organisations such as Oxfam will ‘save the world’, just as I don’t think that the EU is all that it could or should be. I do believe that huge bureaucracies dedicated to protecting vulnerable people should ensure that their staff behave in accordance with their principles. That’s a no-brainer. But it’s not what these attacks on Oxfam are about.
Although I don’t come from nor live in the US, I have written before about how much I enjoy visiting and meeting its people. What follows is written in a spirit of friendship as well as frustration.
I see that #howtofixtrumpinfivewords is currently trending. Here’s my suggestion:
Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy, Trump.
This is the thing: I don’t understand why Donald Trump is still alive. I can’t work out how, in a country which has so many weapons and where people are supposedly so attached to the constitutionally-hallowed ideals of Freedom and Democracy, no one has had the courage to act in accordance with those values.
The US is known as the Land of the Brave. Well, America, that’s not how it looks from the outside. I’m getting the impression that your population is made up of 280 million cowards. Maybe you’re all hoping that some aggrieved Haitian or Salvadoran will redeem you. Well, that would make sense. Contract the jobs you can’t be bothered to do out to some ‘shithole’ third world country.
I guess you’re concerned about the possibility of another civil war. Well, I’m worried about a world war. I’m terrified about a planet run by and for criminally insane demagogues with genocidal racist belief systems and access to infinitely destructive weaponry. This is something you have to stop happening. At this point, it doesn’t really matter how you do it. This has gone too far. Trump speaks and acts in your name.
I had an odd thought today: how many movies have I seen, stories have I read, conversations have I been part of on the theme of if-I-had-a-time-machine-I’d-go-back-and-kill-Hitler. Well, here we are. What do you need*? More target practice? Are you waiting for someone with a loudhailer to shout ‘action’? Do you think that people in the mid-’30s put all their hopes in the mid-terms, or prayed that the judicial system would stave off tyranny? Would that have been enough?
There’s a press conference taking place right now in the White House. Various correspondents are reporting on Trump’s (predictably) hypocritical words about MLK. They don’t seem to have realised that the event is being broadcast live, so their on-the-spot reports are moot. Keen to preserve their precious status as insiders, they’re silently expressing their dissent via Twitter. Hence, no one has had the courage to make a scene.
America: forget Twitter. That’s Trump’s chosen medium. It suits him perfectly – regardless of how many seditious hashtags trend, he comes out winning within his bubble, and so do you. It’s no more real than shadows on the wall of a cave, and as forms of protest go it’s only slightly more meaningful than shouting at the TV – in fact, the very best moments on Twitter can usefully be compared to the joy of doing so collectively. If you insist on restricting your political activity to social media, you will always lose, even as you believe otherwise. You need to be braver.
How then should you respond? Take a risk: put up posters, distribute leaflets and form a resistance group in the area where you live. Put social media to good use by connecting with other such groups to organise a massive march on Washington. This will require direct occupation, confrontation and personal danger, and you need to make sure you don’t face it alone.
Please, don’t sit and wait in hope that November will bring the nightmare to an end. Historically, for the sake of the past and the future, and geographically, on behalf of all of us who don’t live in the US and whose own struggles and life chances are being jeopardised in your name, you have no right to be so blasé and passive.
Alternatively, try taking your cue from Hollywood, from all those movies that preach political violence as a form of redemption. So many heroes and superheroes risking their individual lives and freedom for their ideals, blasting their enemies to smithereens in the process. It doesn’t happen very much in real life, but maybe something like it needs to happen now. Perhaps one of those individuals who argued, against the pleading of their more circumspect peers, that it ‘didn’t matter’ who won the election might like to, you know, step up and try to redeem themselves. America is, after all, in desperate need of a hero.
*Some have argued in response that such a suggestion is ‘immoral’. Well, here’s a short extract from a conversation that has never, ever taken place:
Person 1: You know what I’d do if I had a time machine? I’d go back and kill Hitler.
Person 2: But that would be immoral/might lead to a catastrophic outcome/etc.
A Worker Reads History
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.
(Fernando Pessoa, ‘The Book of Disquiet’)