A two-year-old child explains why we can’t “just leave”

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This week we begin a new series in which guest bloggers, representing a range of voices less commonly heard in the mainstream media, give their opinions on the issues of the day. Today Maya, aged two, considers a “no deal” Brexit.

As a toddler, I understand the impulse to, as many British people have put it, just leave the EU without arrangements in place that might serve to ensure the country’s survival. However, I’d like to offer an analogy which will explain why I think it may not be the best available option. Leaving, it turns out, is often a mite more complex than one may at first assume.

Across the road from our flat in London there’s a park. An amazing park. With a bendy slide, literal swings and actual roundabouts, parents speaking what sounds like quite a variety of grown-up languages, fellow toddlers  babbling away incoherently as we are wont to do, the odd individual adult gulping down a delicious-looking beverage apparently called K Cider, and what seems to be an endless abundance of flowers and grass and pigeons and trees and mud and bins and leaves and twigs and stones to put in those bins. There are also DOGS! Doggies!! Woof-woofs!!! And a dinosaur! (I am not making this up. There is a dinosaur!) Sometimes I look out of the window and the sight of the outside world triggers thoughts of the park’s bountiful and tantalising treasures. Seized by the impulse to be OUTSIDE, I rush to the door, but unfortunately, I’m too tiny to reach the door handle*. This turns out to be just the first of very many complications.

Leaving the house to go to the park is no, as it were, walk in the park. One issue is that I am, how can I put this, linguistically challenged. I have the verbal sophistication of, well, a two-year-old. Further complicating matters is that (shock! horror!) one of my parents (I think it’s the female one) comes from another language background, so I’m often struggling when it comes to expressing my wants and needs. For example, if I decide on a  bit of a whim that I don’t actually want to wear THAT hat, not the one with the dinosaur on it that sometimes makes my head feel a bit hot, but another one that I vaguely remember that might on proper reflection belong to another child at nursery, or maybe one that I definitely possess but which, following my own peculiar proclivities, I have chosen to put in the washing machine or the oven, I can’t put my wishes into words and sentences. Or I can, but sometimes my thoughts and feelings come out all convoluted and lacking in coherence**. Babbling, as I mentioned earlier. Added to this is the fact that I’m not yet totally expert at regulating my emotional state, which leads to impatience and frustration on my part and, as a consequence, on that of my parents. In such a state I’m prone to repeating at increasing pitch and volume the word ‘pak! PAAAAAAAAAAAK!!!!’ to little avail. For there are always parental precautions that have to be taken before we leave. This being the “winter” period***, it’s not just a matter of needing to wear a coat, hat, appropriate footwear (i.e. not that of my parents), and a scarf (I HATE scarfs); there are also mittens to be located, suitable parental garments to be selected and donned (with, I have to say, a measure of assistance from yrs truly), plus often a debate as to whether not I get to bring my scooter, because my passion for putting leaves and twigs and stones in the bin means I haven’t always got a hand free to carry it with, which means that someone else (but who??) needs to do so on my behalf.

So something that might seem straightforward turns out not just to be complex but actually complicated. It’s never just a case of opening the door and merrily toddling my way to the lift. The whole process takes time, patience and energy and demands careful preparation and supervision. It is often intensely frustrating and sometimes, for example if one of the parental people happens to notice that it’s actually raining outside, it may not actually result in success.

Now, I’m aware this might be seen as a poor analogy. Getting a child ready for a trip to the park is not nearly as involved a procedure as preparing a country to leave an economic and political union after several decades. But that’s kinda my point. In evaluating the need to make careful preparations, it’s essential to give proper consideration to the consequences of not doing so, in all their potential horror. Allowing a very young child to charge out of the house straight into driving winter rains and traffic coming from all directions, with no coat or shoes, no means of getting back home, lost and helpless in a world suddenly become infinitely more terrifying and lonely, would be something only a true psychopath would do. Especially if they knew there to be child snatchers in the vicinity.

Here, then, we might be able to divine a connection with the dilemma currently faced by the UK. After all, the grown-up world is immensely complex. It operates in ways that would not only befuddle your average nursery-age infant, but would also place incalculable demands on huge teams of experts working to tight schedules over a period of very many years. Just as I struggle to make sense of the complex procedures involved in nipping out to the local playground for 20 minutes or so, the average beflagged twitternaut is underequipped to understand the delicate ins and outs of the EU withdrawal process, and may not have thought through the impact that leaving the EU in any form will have on the future provision of things like well-equipped and safe parks for children to play in, basic regulations to make sure external doors are child-safe, and essential foodstuffs like bananas, tomatoes and cans of K Cider for kids to enjoy in those parks when they get a little bit older.

As I say, I can certainly relate to the impulse to kick and scream and (let’s be frank) poo oneself in the messiest of ways in order to realise one’s immediate life goals. But I’m also acutely aware that my own vision of events is limited to a considerable extent by my puerile desire for immediate gratification without regard for the wider consequences and my infantile apprehension of the scale and complexity of any given set of circumstances. Put simply, I get tantrums. But even as a two-year-old child, I can see pretty clearly that leaving the EU without a deal would not be in the interest of me, my generation or indeed anyone but those whose mentality and worldview are considerably more selfish and less well-informed than your average toddler’s.

Right, that’s the word count met, I’m off to watch me some Teletubbies.

*I am now able to reach the alarm button in the lift, though. Yay!
**I suspect I may have inherited this characteristic from my male parent.
***By the way, those who claim that the climate is getting warmer might like to consider that just a few short months ago we were on something called a beach and it was warm. Now most days we don’t even walk to nursery. You do the math.

‘Tonight thank God it’s them’: Brexit, food, resentment and inequality

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I once taught ‘Business English’ to the owner of a hedge fund in Mayfair*. It turned out he’d started his company in the year 2008. That’s…auspicious, I remarked. Once I’d explained the word and helped him do a cost benefit analysis on whether it was worth committing to memory, he dismissed my suggestion that a financial company might have suffered the effects of a massive global financial crisis with the words “We’re above all that”.

Reflecting over the course of the last Midwinter Shopping And Stuffing Your Face Festival in its present form, I’ve been struck by the thought that Brexit represents something of the same order in relation to food. My mother grew up with rationing, and possibly as a result tends to overprovide at family gatherings. She’s lucky to be able to (just) afford to do so; anyone who’s been near the Department of Social Security of late knows that rationing exists again in the form of government-mandated food banks. The calculated humiliation involved may well have helped cause Brexit**, although anyone tempted by the ultraleftist notion that widespread suffering after March 29th will inevitably lead to revolution should be warned: people who’ve had the shit kicked out of them are less likely to fight back, in much the same way as no dead person has ever won a major boxing title. (Muhammed Ali doesn’t count, as although he did win some of his titles under a different name, he wasn’t dead when he did so.)

It was partly a seasonal internet kerfuffle in response to this tweet by an ardent Corbyn supporter that set me thinking about food, resentment, inequality and Brexit. Corbyn probably won’t be among the worst affected by food shortages, as he famously has an allotment. In, I will argue, much the same way, ‘people’ (or at least cartoon characters) like Rees-Mogg have enormous estates which could easily and profitability be farmed by the idle poor, so they’re more likely to see mass starvation as an opportunity rather than a threat.

As the fog clears around Brexit and reveals itself to have been steam on a ever-freshly replenished mound of shit, certain themes become clear. They are gathered and explored in Fintan O’Toole’s excellent book ‘Heroic Failures: Brexit and the politics of pain’, which details how this particular stew of self-aggrandisement, self-pity and resentment of others was concocted, and how it’s led to everyone on HMS Shit Britain looking, if not queasy, then certainly depressed.

Food snobbery is one of those themes. Only an outside observer could have noticed our ongoing pathologies in our relationship with food and our attitudes towards others’ eating habits. O’Toole recalls Boris Johnson’s championing of cheap, popular food in the form of Prawn Cocktail crisps and his sneering at metropolitan liberals’ taste for Italian peasant cuisine while he himself continued to enjoy the very best that Tuscany has to offer. Class resentment and the manifold hypocrisies it entails found expression in the fetid burp that was the Brexit vote. Just as Johnson would not dream of even sniffing at a Turkey Twizzler, Rees-Mogg has no more set foot in a Tesco Metro than his ancestors sacrificed themselves for glory little more than a century ago. Brexit embodies not so much the spirit of the Blitz as the loud, clear echoes of the sacrifice of the Somme. An upper-class version of British history may exhort us to sacrifice ourselves pro patria, but it’s the martyrdom of others further down the scale which tends to result.

Just as a century ago ruling class generals boasted of greater glory and honour while casually tossing away millions of lesser lives, failed negotiator David Davies appeared on Question Time in December 2018 talking of a so-called “no-deal” Brexit as the country’s “Destiny”; much as crowds lined the streets in 1914 to cheer the soldiers off to war, Davies’ vainglorious appeal was greeted with wild applause. I also heard loud, clear echoes of Mussolini. The line between the hard right and the far-right is an increasingly thin one.

At our family Christmas, conversations (thankfully) steered clear of Brexit, revolving instead around food: various tropes which involve bitching about what our neighbours in the supermarket queue are and aren’t consuming. In his book ‘The Chinese’ Jasper Becker identifies Chinese peasants’ dreams of abundant food as the main ingredient in Chinese history. The murky gravy that is ‘British identity’ always seems to contain several lumps of resentment of and scorn for others’ eating habits, and even the fact that they get to eat at all. There was a telling moment a while back when Michael Gove started raging that China had refused to take any more of our plastic and burn it for us. For the leading Brexit conspirators such as him, the fact that those Chinese peasants nowadays gorge on cheap chicken and pork and can no longer be forced to consume British opium seems to fuel their righteous fury.

This mentality, that it is our god-given right to make others suffer for our own benefit, can be traced back at least easily as far as the Irish and Bengal famines. Ironically it was a pair of c*lts (Bob Geldof and Midge Ure) who created the modern hymn to this aspect of Empire. That high priest of celebrity sanctimoniousness Bono didn’t write the song, but he did caterwaul the most obnoxious line, sounding while doing so like he was off his face on piety. Viewed in emotional sobriety, the lyrics embody a certain strain of Catholicism particularly prevalent in the Ireland of the 1950s-60s: nuns collecting for little black babies, for the godless barely deserving of the life that we may, in our infinite charity and mercy, deign to grant them with.

We might look kindly on the original audience for the song given its very 1980s commodification of pity, its witless neo-Victorian platitudes and staggeringly offensive generalisations in an era characterised by the ‘late failure of radical hopes’. But it struck me that its continued popularity (even, I’d venture, increasing prominence) speaks of resentment, of celebrating the suffering of others. Bono’s line ‘Tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you’ put me immediately in mind of O’Toole discussion of the concept of ‘sadopopulism’: the willingness to inflict pain on oneself on the understanding that by doing so you are making your enemy suffer more. You might think of it as cutting off your own nose to spite your neighbour’s face. In another echo of Empire and of slavery, it recalls Ta-Nehesi Coates’ explanation of the racism of poor whites in the American South: as long as they had someone else to look down upon, they felt secure. Upon seeing a black man in the White House they revolted against their reduced status, and Trump was the result. Similar dynamics operated in the UK with regard to the loss of Empire, and the result was not just (contrary to what Paul Gilroy argued) mere melancholy, but the bigoted fury of Geoffrey Bloom, the woman on the Croydon tram and many (but not all) of those who voted to leave the EU.

Thus does Brexit represent a case of (chlorinated) chickens coming home to roost. This is exacerbated in the case of those who know they won’t suffer, in the proud British tradition of offering up others’ lives for sacrifice. One TV survivalist stated openly on Twitter what Farage et al must surely be saying off-camera: that maybe a period of intense poverty and suffering will teach ‘us’ a valuable lesson. (This might give us pause to think, post-Bros documentary, about the relationship between celebrity and fascism, but for the fact that, as Labour’s purported Brexit strategy somehow fails to acknowledge, we don’t have much time.***)

At least Thatcherite self-interest as an ideology had a logic to it, whether that involved the famous boats of grain being dumped in the sea to ensure that failed Ethiopian consumers didn’t buck the market, or young people eventually smashing shop windows to simply take that which they had long been tormented by their (individual, always individual) failure to obtain legitimately. But in essence Johnson and Rees-Mogg are not neoliberals. They don’t actually believe all that Raabian horseshit about buccaneer entrepreneurship. One might call them neocons, in that their primary dedication is to preservation of their own wealth and power. I find it more useful to think of them as elitists. One wonders what Thatcher (pbuh) would have made of Johnson’s ‘Fuck business!’ comment. Capitalism is after all only one means of preserving elite power. Farage’s equally underreported line about dressing up in khaki points to an as yet unquenched desire for hard rather than soft power. Tragically, Labour (and Owen Jones) chose not to see that Tommy Robinson failed the shock troop audition. “3,000 racist internet trolls” is the eloquent answer to the question of how well prepared the far-right is to maintain order.

*           *           *           *           *

As things stand now, on the 6th January, there appears to be an overlap between Rees-Mogg and the Labour leadership’s desire to make Brexit happen whatever the cost. In the current climate it’s not impossible to imagine Corbyn being photographed sneaking out of Rees-Mogg’s Mayfair apartment late at night. I made the then-barmy prediction that Rees-Mogg would somehow end up Tory leader, but I didn’t  foresee that their interests would align. (If only I was better at thinking dialectically…). It would be nice to be able to dismiss out of hand Nick Cohen’s very-Nick Cohen-esque argument for Corbyn as an ultraleftist looking to exploit social breakdown to storm the Winter Palace, but that word ‘climate’ reminds me that one of his closest supporters is someone who may well have sat round the same family table for the Christmas nutroast: his distinctly undigestible brother. Not only does Piers have a day job providing hysterical weather predictions to the Daily Express, he also takes money from climate-lying organisations to turn up to events related to climate change to barrack those trying to save the human race. He’s very much in favour of a no-deal Brexit, and he also thinks Jeremy would make an excellent PM. Reflecting on this makes me fear that if elected Jeremy’s first act would be to appoint David Icke as Minister for Lizard Eradication.

I don’t know whether Corbyn has studied in anything like sufficient detail the reports of what will happen in the event of a no deal scenario*****. (For the record he says he finds the notion “absolutely unacceptable”, but then he hasn’t come with a meaningful alternative beyond popping back to Brussels and renegotiating the whole thing in the space of two or so weeks. I presume this means he doesn’t mind offending the intelligence of everyone including those Labour voters who voted to leave.) He is a romantic rather than intellectual, one who gives the impression that after reading ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in 6th form he thought, right well that’s all I’ll ever need to know about the world. When I was living in Rome I never got round to visiting the Keats and Shelley house, but I will have time to do so if we end up moving back there. Even Italy’s madcap government of criminals and clowns isn’t evil and insane enough to starve its own people out of pure ideological zealotry.

Anyone who doesn’t understand the stakes for the UK economy would be well-advised to reflect on how many Just Eat signs they see on failing fast food establishments interspersed with boarded-up shops on their next promenade down the nearest rapidly-running-down high street. Or consider the amount of people employed in food distribution and services compared to the number employed in agriculture. No external food supply means no economy. Britain’s is a consumer society based, as the caption on a Modern Toss cartoon once eloquently put it, on everyone eating like a fucking pig all the time. What is in prospect makes Trump’s years-long government shutdown seem measured and sensible. And it makes those who actually argue for a so-called “no deal” (final) solution look distinctly like Pol Pot.

As with climate breakdown, the only thing that matches the scale of the crisis in store is the extent to which almost everyone one meets has absolutely no intention of doing a single thing to prevent it. Like Chinese peasants after Jiang Zemin, we now have more than enough winter provisions of conspiracy theories, consoling fairy tales, fireside folk narratives to stave off the (actually, for some reason, not all that) cold and keep us over-entertained. If there was an in-out referendum on WiFi or food, I’m not all that sure we’d make the right choice. Do you want a stable climate or an iPhone? Would you prefer Netflix or death*****? At least if we can get online we can gorge on resentment, even if we have nothing left to eat.

The latest news about Brexit is that we ‘may’ be short of such rare delicacies as bananas and tomatoes but that’s okay because mid-spring is when so much excellent and bountiful English produce comes into season (instant fact-check: it isn’t). 40% of what we eat comes directly from the EU: everything else we import comes via it. The “no deal” plan is to stop trading in food. It is a no food scenario. This is shock doctrine as anorexia. Maybe Corbyn, who has yet to utter in public the only word that currently has meaning (revoke!) is under the impression that, like him, everyone in the country has access to an allotment. Perhaps his brother convinced him over a vegan mince pie that it’s going to be a particularly warm early spring for no discernible reason and that prize turnips and supermarrows will abound in Brexit Britain, before the whole family joined hands for a rousing rendition of ‘Do they know it’s Brexit?’.

Whatever happens, here’s a prediction: there won’t be any charity songs in the UK next Christmas time. The only gift we’ll get next year is…fuck knows. Some bananas and tomatoes, hopefully. “Where nothing ever grows…”. My mum grew up without bananas, but my baby daughter loves them. As for tomatoes, I’ve kept a few extra tins to hand so I can throw them very hard at anyone who still supports fucking Lexit.

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* That’s right: I’ve wasted my life and we are already in hell.
** It’s unlikely that Daniel Blake would have voted to stay in the EU.
*** Seeing as this piece partly addresses the psychological phenomenon of displacement activity, it behoves me to mention that I’ve actually got two actual essays to write.
**** I’ve been enjoying the series ‘Sunderland til I die’, I think partly because there is viele Schadenfreude in seeing a city which voted to leave the EU then get ejected from the Premier League and then the Championship in successive seasons.
***** I’d also be quite curious to know whether or not Jeremy Corbyn watches, as well as appearing on, Russia Today. I can imagine him enjoying Slavoj Zizek’s new chat show, which I’m not going anywhere near as my Youtube suggestions still haven’t recovered from the time I watched eight or nine seconds of David Icke-enthusiast and aspiring Beppe Grillo Russell Brand’s interview with J*rdan P*t*rson. Russell, if you’re reading this, read a fucking book for a change; and while I’m at it, if you happen to work for Youtube, no I’m not interested in even more racist videos, thank you very much.

Ps Just in case anyone thinks I’ve overegged how fucked up this country has become, here is a photo taken in Manchester today of people protesting against…Jesus it’s too depressing to even finish this sentence

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Those ‘pockets’ of left-wing anti-semitism are being filled by the far-right

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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.

I’ve seen it for myself: Corbyn’s thugs are getting even younger, and becoming much more dangerous

Difficult as it is to write, I’ve come to believe Ben Goldsmith. He recently gave a shocking account, much derided on social media, of how a West London social gathering he was attending was rudely gatecrashed by a gang of Corbynista hoodlums, fresh from commemorating the Grenfell tragedy in their inimitably rowdy fashion.  Like most, I doubted from the lack of evidence that events actually took place in accordance with his retelling of them, but now I’ve seen up close how the Momentum faction operates and just how young some of its firebrand activists are, I feel inclined to believe that he may have been telling the truth.

Here’s what I experienced. I’d ask that you reserve judgment of me and my story until you’ve read what I have to say and seen the photographic evidence for yourself. I’m not by any means what anyone would regard as a Tory and I wouldn’t fit comfortably into any meaningful definition of a ‘centrist’. I’m a Labour Party member, I voted for Corbyn in 2015 and I’ve read the Guardian religiously all my life.(Possibly too religiously, if my shrine to Aditya Chakrabortty is anything to go by.)

As it happens, this whole furore started because of newspapers. I’ve recently been trying to vary my media diet (with mixed results), and so when I happened upon a copy of The Times in a local (Islington) café, I started to peruse the news section. Now, I’d be put out if anyone took me for a regular reader, but I was still entirely unprepared for the (in my opinion) utterly unwarranted response of a very young person who was sitting nearby. She or he (it’s getting hard to tell the difference nowadays!) wasn’t wearing any visible insignia of allegiance to Corbyn’s sect of ruffians, but from her age and rebellious demeanour it was clear that she had been seized by some sort of radical fervour.

You may feel disinclined to doubt my words. We do after all live in an age of fake news and highly sophisticated ideological manipulation. I can only urge you to believe the evidence of your own eyes; the following photos constitute an absolutely accurate and unadulterated record of exactly what happened. 

Happy new year, fuck the Tories.

Corbyn has spent his career challenging ‘the will of the people’. What changed?

Here is a brief list of policies of Britain’s democratically elected government that the backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn opposed on the basis of his principles:

  • The Falklands War
  • The invasion of Iraq
  • The Poll Tax
  • Trident
  • Post-2008 austerity

Additionally, throughout his backbench career Corbyn espoused and actively supported laudable causes in which both the general public and his party leadership showed little interest, including climate change, Palestine, an equitable peace settlement in Northern Ireland, Latin American solidarity, and LGBT rights. All of the above have been minority concerns in mainstream British politics for most of the last thirty or so years.

So Corbyn’s own career as a politician is an embodiment of the principle that the people can be wrong, that in any case its will can be misrepresented, and that it is the role of politicians to shift the voting public round to their point of view. Some people get involved in politics in order to pursue their self-interest; many on the right espouse a politics of self-interest in order to justify their own greed. We had been led to believe that Jeremy Corbyn believes in politics as a means of changing the world for the better for ordinary people, particularly for those whose interests are usually marginalised. 

That Brexit was a right-wing scam carried out in order to remake the country in line with the interests of Robert Mercer, Rupert Murdoch and Aaron Banks and in keeping with the ideological zealotry of Daniel Hannan, Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage is now undeniable. It was never a case of exit, stage left. The mantra that the Brexit vote is an inviolable embodiment of the ‘will of the people’ is thus cynical and unprincipled. Labour has a moral and political duty to convince its supporters who voted leave that they were duped, and to persuade them that the EU, far from being the cause of their woes, was merely used as a scapegoat by self-interested businessmen and ideologically-motivated politicians. In the face of decidedly unpropitious international circumstances, Corbyn supported the people of Nicaragua against deeply reactionary imperialist right-wing forces in the 1980s – he needs to use his very real political influence to oppose those forces in the UK in 2018.

Conspiracy sites are a gateway drug leading to the far-right

I’ve always rejected out of hand the notion that the political spectrum is a horseshoe, that the far-right and far-left are close to one another in various ways. However, what I’ve seen in Facebook groups on both sides of the Atlantic is that the far-right is stealthily digging a tunnel in order to insinuate its ideas into the far-left and beyond.

This mostly takes the form of memes promoting conspiracy theories which target ‘privileged elites’. Superficially persuasive videos blame (most commonly) the Rothschild family (a long-standing anti-semitic canard) and The Vatican for the world’s chaos and corruption. Such videos are distributed by sites which a moment’s investigation reveals to be teeming in pro-Putin/Trump and climate denial material. However, the conspiratorial tone in which they are presented is like catnip to online audiences desperate for easy explanations of troubling but confusing events.

Conspiracy thinking has often been called ‘the poor man’s ideology‘. It’s easier to understand the notion that a secretive group of powerful people controls the world than it is to pick apart the myriad ways in which capitalism preserves itself as a chaotic but impersonal system, in terms of both interacting repressive institutions and also via conservative ideas which circulate at every level – including the ideas that we ourselves hold.

It’s also deeply comforting to think that someone, somewhere is in charge, partly because it lets our own roles in preserving that system off the hook. The problem is always other people’s corruption and venality, none of which can even be addressed directly because They Control Everything. This enables the consumer of conspiracy theories to do nothing but read, watch and share the hidden truth, and to remain in every other way politically passive. Like the ultimate function of a dream, conspiracy theorising works to keep you asleep.

The conspiracist worldview also, ironically, makes those who subscribe to it easy manipulable. Trump’s anti-‘MSM’ tweets are a very clear sign that widespread hostility towards all mass media suits the needs of those who hold formal office. It means what they do and their reasons for doing it face no scrutiny. The fact that he calls all media which questions his power ‘fake’ and instructs his supporters to ignore whatever it says should remind us how essential a free media is to democracy.

What Trump is doing in his blundering way has already been done in a much more sophisticated manner by the Kremlin, with Russia Today. With its line-up of charismatic rebels such as Max Keiser, RT is consistently entertaining. Like all such media, it provides simple but compelling explanations of complex events. Much of its coverage is relatively innocuous, following the same line as other channels. But there is a clear and very clever conspiratorial line in its reporting which dovetails with the content of explicitly right-wing outlets like Infowars and Breitbart, with their pseudo-radical insinuations of a secret Jewish liberal agenda known as the New World Order. That narrative is not coherent, because it doesn’t need to be: it just needs to titillate to the point of being shareable. It is a very short succession of clicks from RT videos showing the ‘truth’ about Russia’s involvement in Syria to ones promoting the idea of a jew-run plot to dominate humanity or denying climate change. It and the videos which (not by coincidence) exist in its orbit are a gateway drug to the far-right.

A key element of media literacy is knowledge of who owns a particular outlet. We need to know who is telling us a given story. Those of us on the Left know to steer clear of Fox News, The Sun, etc. People are also right to be suspicious of the BBC’s coverage of UK politics, given the compromises and connections at the level of personnel. Westminster journalists are often too close to their subjects to have a wider perspective, and they often come to identify with the worldview of those they cover. But the question of whose media we are consuming is even more important on the Internet, because there we are exposed to much more and much more sophisticated means of manipulation.

We need to know which sites to avoid. In particular, those who moderate left-wing forums need to know which sites to automatically block. A good rule of thumb is that if something mentions the Rothschilds or talks about the NWO, it comes from a far-right source and has no place in a left-wing group. However, given the sophistication of attempts to insinuate reactionary ideas into radical circles, we need to be more precise. That’s why this list (helpfully posted by a friend on a pro-Corbyn forum) is so very useful. It consists of a checklist of sites, identifying which are legitimate and which are known to be pushing an insidious agenda. It flags up, for example, the sites yournewswire.com and anonews, both of which I have seen linked to several times in nominally left-wing Facebook groups over the last few days. On each occasion dozens of people who see themselves as progressive have been taken in, liking and sharing material which a moment’s inspection reveals to be far-right propaganda. The Left needs to be much more vigilant about the danger such videos represent. Jeremy Corbyn may represent many things to many people; those who see him as the new David Icke need to be made actively unwelcome in left-wing circles.

Brexit Shorts: A must-see for anyone interested in why the UK voted to leave

Brexit dynamited the edifice of British political life, and as a result some parts of the building are still unsafe to enter. For that reason, Jeremy Corbyn is wise (as Tae Hoon Kim argued) to steer clear of the issue for the time being and to allow the monster that the Tories created to tear them apart. 

Does that mean we as a nation should ignore the whole thing, pretend it never happened? While it’s hard to see how John Harris’ laudable call for open and honest dialogue with those who voted to leave can take place within the walls of conventional political debate, there are other fora which enable us to try to understand what circumstances lay behind the explosion. One such forum is art, ‘the lie that tells the truth’, and specifically drama. 

We should be grateful to The Guardian for providing us (in the form of ‘Brexit Shorts‘) with nine eloquent if sometimes excoriating explanations of the causes of the vote. They remind us that few of those who voted Leave did so out of myopic xenophobia. Many did so because they were living in a different country to the rest of us. To dismiss them as reactionary dullards is to refuse to acknowledge that the prosperous Britain we felt we lived in, a place where most people enjoy a reasonable standard of living and the prospect of a bright future, was not by any means the universal experience. 

Significantly for my own position on all this, I was not in the UK at the time of the vote, but in Thailand, enjoying a very relaxing couple of months while my wife did a course at the university. Previously we’d spent a fabulous year in Mexico City, living in a very pleasant part of town taking full advantage of all the opportunites that our suddenly enhanced economic status afforded us. My working life consisted of flying to other cities, staying in nice hotels, interviewing a handful of local people and then going to nice restaurants. After a while, such experience of unwarranted privilege gets under your skin, begins to seem natural. If you think of the effect of several centuries of automatic entitlement, the arrogance of people like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who were secure in the knowledge that whatever happened to the UK economy as a result of the vote, their privileges were guaranteed, becomes more understandable. Although I would never have admitted it to myself a year or so ago, my fear about the possible loss of the fruits of my own good fortune partly fuelled my fury at the result.

Watching the videos I was reminded of the days of the London riots of 2011. I had a colleague who, sneering at the young people on the streets, rhetorically demanded to know why they couldn’t just follow his example. When I pointed out that his example consisted of going to a good school in a well-off area followed by a publicly-funded university which he had paid nothing in fees, he responded as though, well, as though I’d challenged his automatic sense of entitlement. More recently, a discussion with Nick Currie aka Momus about the motivations of Brexit voters ended up in Norman Tebbit territory: if there are no opportunities where they are, they should all just move. Although I feel distinctly chippy pointing it out, it’s not quite irrelevant that Momus went to a private school and then a public university on a full grant. It’s not possible to talk about such things as Brexit without reference to class, that great taboo in British life, and that does mean being honest about our own privileges.

The dramas presented in the Brexit Shorts series all, thankfully, take a more considered and searching approach than just dismissing Brexit voters as lacking in ambition, empathy and geographical imagination. It also explains to those who voted for Brexit the grief and fear that the decision engendered in other people whose lives could in no terms be described as privileged. I found watching them both enlightening and therepeutic. Anyone who is even remotely interested in how the Brexit vote happened and what sort of country Britain is as a result should watch them all and encourage their friends and families to do so. If we are to build a progressive movement in the UK against austerity, xenophobia and in favour of equality and urgent action on the climate, it will have to be alliance between those of us who voted to remain and those who voted to leave.

Don’t get distracted by burnt-out cars: There is political will to transform the planet

There’s a wave of extreme heat assailing the planet. In several US states its caused road signs to melt, and in some the roads are too. There are forest fires across swathes of a number of European countries: last month over 60 people were burned alive in their vehicles in Portugal. In Italy (where I live) we are experiencing several days of a red heat alert with record-high temperatures, and a drought which has lasted several months with no end in sight.

If we don’t act now to prevent the planet from heating up like this, we will all be (quite literally) toast. And yet world leaders in Hamburg have just agreed to quadruple subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Although politicians like Merkel and Macron understand the climate is changing, they also believe that there’s a lack of political will for tackling the problem, and so and very many more roads will melt and very many more cars will burn ; none of them at the hands of the fabled ‘Black Bloc’.

The other main story on our local news bulletins is about Italy’s attempts to persuade other European countries to share reponsibilities for the refugee crisis by opening up their ports and agreeing to distribute new arrivals around Europe. Even though in the past Merkel have shown some courage and principles in arguing in favour of Europe’s duty to shelter those fleeing war and economic collapse, now there’s a ‘lack of political will’, even though hundreds of desperate people are drowning and risking death to reach our shores, many of them having experienced brutal treatment in Isis-run camps in the Libyan desert. In Italy itself bigoted parties and stirring up hatred against the very notion of a refugee, and the Left, currently in Government, is capitulating to xenophobic sentiment.

The spectacular images of cars burning in Hamburg have been accompanied by very little reporting of the concerns of the (overwhelmingly peaceful) demonstrators. A glance at their banners reveals what their ambitions are: human rights for all, urgent action on the climate and an end to austerity. They are expressing political will.

The great lie of the last forty years is that this is the only possible world. If people and the planet must suffer and die in order that some might profit, then so be it. But it’s demonstrably not true. Last month, against all predictions, people in the UK expressed political will. Jeremy Corbyn’s astonishing transformation of the British political landscape proved that where politicians provide principled leadership, they can persuade whole populations to change their minds, even on unpopular issues such as austerity, climate change and our response to the refugee crisis.

Naomi Klein’s new book ‘No is not enough’ argues that we (all those who share progressive values, including the notions that human life itself has value and that our species should survive) need to do two things: to understand the ways in which shocking events are exploited by those with the means to do so and used against our interests, and to articulate a positive vision of how we want the world to be. Those who are demonstrating in Hamburg are doing exactly that, and Labour’s near-victory in the UK proves conclusively that there is massive popular appetite for such a vision. An instinctively conservative mass media automatically pushes back against such a movement, seeking to discredit it with images of violent destruction outside the heavily-fortified compounds where our future is being decided; we know that what is being prepared will be infinitely more violent and destructive unless we decide to take on the task of determining our own futures. That will demand a massive exertion of political will on the part of all of us.

Anti-semitism and the ‘Left’

Who is responsible for all the world’s spiralling problems? A video posted on the ‘AnoNews’ Facebook page claims that two powerful individuals are to blame: Jacob Rothschild and George Soros. Those two leading, er, financers conspire together wih others of their ilk to cause wars, famines, false flag attacks and (I haven’t watched the video in question, so I’m surmising) the mass eating of Christian babies.

The video is going down a sturm online. It was posted in a group I follow called Jeremy Corbyn – True Socialism and is still there right now, despite repeated requests to the moderators to remove it*. But why on earth would you want to do so, say some unaccountably naive individuals? Aren’t we allowed to talk about the control that all-powerful je…sorry, I meant to say ‘zionists’**, exert over our lives?

The Rational Wiki website, a reliable source for information about climate and holocaust deniers and those who carpool with them, points out that invocations of theories involving the Rothschilds “is a good sign you’re in the more conspiratorial and anti-Semitic neighborhood of the Internet”. As for Soros, it points to a couple of instructive examples of sites which reveal the ‘truth’ about his ‘agenda’. They are, as you may have already gathered, explicitly anti-semitic ones, and inevitably they also make a big thing of his, erm, connection to ‘the Rothschilds’.

Does this mean I automatically defend what politically significant billionaires get up to, or that I’m a supporter of the Israeli State’s quasi-genocidal treatment of the Palestinians? Of course not. But it should be absolutely clear to anyone who regards themselves as progressive that when online memes target those particular individuals and not the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch (etc), they are deliberately evoking anti-semitism. The sharing and liking of the Anonymous video confirms that while the campaign to smear Corbyn himself as anti-semitic was utterly dishonest and quite disgraceful***, among his supporters there are people who are not in the least bit inoculated against insidious anti-Jewish sentiment.

Certain kinds of populist political discourse serve the interests of the far-right, and such language and the ways of thinking that it encodes are prevalent on the Left nowadays. The University of Sheffield politics blog (written by department academics rather than lizards) recently argued that one of the main weaknesses of the pro-Corbyn movement is a tendency to think in terms of conspiracies rather than capitalism, to talk about secretive and malevolent elites rather than the workings of an impersonal and chaotic system which produces inequality, exploitation and injustice. This bad habit – based partly on a desire for a comforting narrative that pretends that someone, somewhere is in control – leaves the Left wide open to far-right manipulation. There is a fetid, bubbling swamp which now covers a great deal of territory thought of as ‘radical’ (including Infowars, various sites claiming to be ‘Anonymous’ and (increasingly) Wikileaks), and the gases it belches out stink of antisemitism and other far-right tropes. The Left has to learn to steer as far away from it as possible if it is not to be tainted by the same toxic associations, or, even worse, sucked in altogether.

*Whenever I’ve seen similar material in other such groups it has been removed with alacrity.

**Various people tried to defend the video in these terms. In fact, the only people who describe Soros as a zionist are anti-semites. Don’t believe me? Google the words Soros zionist. Fanatical defenders of Israel hate him, partly because he (laudably) funds Palestinian and Israeli human rights organisations. Here’s an article from the Jerusalem Post on the matter, and here’s one from a pro-Israel US Jewish newspaper. As for the living members of the Rothschild family, if you care to do a quick internet search you’ll see that their relationship with Israel is by no means straightforward. Ergo, when anyone uses the term zionist to describe either man, they mean jew. Btw, if you still have doubts about the whole premise of this piece, viz you think the video may be harmless, simply google Soros Rothschild and have a look at what sorts of site appear. If you’re still not sure which side you should line up to bat for (cricket metaphor!), here’s a quick quiz.

***Anyone tempted to picture me as a lizard would do well to reread that sentence.

P.s. The argument that any amount of anti-semitism is acceptable because: Israel is unerringly close to that made by the far-right a couple of weeks ago in relation to the attack in Finsbury Park. The victims do and did not bring it on themselves.

P.p.s.: The original title of this piece  (‘There *is* anti-semitism on the far-left’) was chosen in a bad mood and didn’t reflect the content. The new title is an adaptation of a famous phrase from the German politician August Bebel.

P.p.p.s. As a means of apologising for all the footnotes and p.s.s, here is a cartoon:

PODCAST! A critical discourse analyst assesses Corbo’s Glasto speecho

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges the crowd at Worthy Farm in Somerset during the Glastonbury Festival

My friend Owen is much more cleverer than me, and he has a freshly-minted PhD in Critical Discourse Analysis to prove it. Here we are talking about Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Glastonbury Festival two days ago.

P.s. If, like me, you find the production values of some left-wing podcasts just too professional and slick, you will be delighted by the authentically downhome quality of the audio on this recording.