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.

Q: What’s wrong with this picture? A: The placards

Here are some situations in which the phrase “I used to be in the Socialist Worker’s Party” might not stand you in good stead:

  • On your professional CV
  • On your Guardian Soulmates dating profile
  • On your personal blog*

Here goes my online street cred: I was, for a stint at university, a few years in Dublin in the mid-nineties and another short period in London about ten years ago, a member of the SWP. I embodied some of the most oft- and rightly-criticised traits:

  1. A simplistic view of the world. I used to write reviews for the party newspaper of cultural products, such as books and films, evaluating them solely in terms of their contribution to the building of the revolutionary party. I also believed that there could be a thing called a ‘revolution’, just like in 1917 (or at least in Eisenstein’s inspiring rendition of it), which would be over by teatime and would not inspire a phenomenally violent and complex period of post- and counterrevolutionary violence. As recently as 2013, when I was involved in the laudable but short-lived initiative Left Unity, I witnessed an actual non-tongue-in-cheek discussion in the pub between SWP members about what they would do “on the day after the revolution”. Luckily George Orwell was just out of hearing distance (buying some more crisps at the bar as I recall), otherwise he might have eaten them all alive.
  2. Sectarianism. I viewed members of similar political organisations as more significant enemies of the class struggle than the police and the army, regarding them as rival species to be wiped out in the struggle for survival and eventual (but inevitable) triumph. I was not so much an activist as an evangelist.
  3. My main political concern was with the growth of the organisation, evidenced by increased newspaper sales, better-attended meetings, larger and louder demonstrations called and led by us, and the visibility of our placards on media coverage of said demos**. Of course, all of these things waxed and waned, but I was encouraged to believe that there was a deeper historical trend at work, that people were angrier than ever before and that provided they would get on the bus to the demonstration we would be able, nay obliged to, recruit them so they would sell the paper to their friends and workmates and the whole pyramid would grow to the point where the working class would soon be gleefully hurling the heads of capitalists down it.
  4. Hijacking events, using demonstrations and meetings in a purely instrumental way to build the party rather than the campaign itself. Oh, how we got sick and tired of being accused of doing this. Oh, how I got sick and tired of actually doing it, until the point where I became deeply cynical and (repeatedly) left the organisation.

How is this relevant in June 2017? Because the organisation is reclaiming a certain protagonism. On demonstrations over the Grenfell tragedy its placards are ubiquitous. This is, I think, dangerous for the reasons suggested above and also because:

Firstly, the SWP tends to mislead. Its chief figures are articulate and very adept at getting themselves onto platforms, but their strategy and tactics will lead any given movement down the same garden path to where the fairies live, on smaller and smaller national demostrations until everyone just stays at home and shouts at the TV instead.

Secondly, the prominent presence of the SWP is off-putting in at least three ways. Firstly, to the public. Someone once waggishly pointed out that the largest political group on the British Left is made up of ex-SWP members. Even for people who’ve never read the paper or attended a protest, Socialist Worker placards are a sign that the usual suspects are up to their old tricks again. Then there’s the fact that it allows the media to misrepresent the protest as a rentamob, as happened on Twitter last night in relation to the protests in Central London. Thirdly, it alienates potential campaigners and activists in the longer-term, in that very many people who come into contact with the organisation become, like me, cynical towards all forms of radical political activity and deeply undemocratic in their attitudes to the organisation of political campaigns.

Now, there remains an important thing to say, which is that for all the faults of the organisation, individual members of it should not be demonized. Despite the sometimes horrendous and often shameful antics of some of its leading members over the last few years, which have left many to abandon their political home (to be replaced each September by a new cohort of fresher-faced footsoldiers), most long-standing SWP members I’ve known have been heartfelt in their belief that the party is the best thing for society. To call them all ‘rape apologists’ is counterproductive and wrong. They’re mistaken and possibly morally compromised, but they are sincere***. Nevertheless, their attempts to play a leading role, whether in the Grenfell campaign or in Momentum should (continue to) be rejected. If other activists in the movement  don’t tell them, to use a phrase that’s been doing the rounds, to ‘get stuffed’, the right-wing media will use the presence of the party to discredit all those involved. 

The SWP is a bureaucracy and as such its aim is to survive and thrive, regardless of the success or failure of whatever cause it attaches it to. My past involvement in the party tells me that as an organisation (just like one or two very similar parties) it does not have the best interests of any given campaign at heart.

*Although I hope its obvious that I’ve only mentioned it in one of those contexts, I do admire the example of a perma-unemployed friend of mine who, when forced to produce a resume in one of those “HANDS OFF ME PENS!” job club mandated by the DSS came up with a piece of paper with his name, address and the details of his erstwhile role as local SWP branch secretary.

**Basically a branding exercise.

***It was meeting some very impressive and charming individual activists in East London in around 2007 that led me to briefly become a member again.

You know what sells really well online? False hope.

This site’s most popular post (‘Donald Trump is going to snap, and here is how I know‘) was twenty times more popular than any other*. It was so widely shared and liked because it offered comfort at a particularly desperate moment. It was also published in various other more august locations and, bizarrely, led to several people googling “is Infinite Concidence reliable?”.

Well, the fact that I wrote it in less than an hour in my pyjamas might cast some doubt on its veracity. I think people found it so convincing because I used a number of powerful quotes from the fancypants psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan and also because the title expressed such conviction.

It stood out in the frenzied and permanently overheated market for positive or at least reassuring headlines. Some outlets cater specifically to such a demand. In this trenchant takedown of the pro-Corbyn website The Canary, Richard Seymour identifies what’s so worrying about this tendency for demand-driven news which sells itself to our emotions. Even when the writers and editors are on our side such sites’ purposeful misrepresentation of events should concern everyone.

My site (this one) doesn’t pretend to be a news site but some things I post here can be mistaken for news articles, particularly when I bang out a bad-mooded hot take satire. One recent piece that wasn’t satirical but was based around very recent events was this one. It originally had a poor choice of headline (‘Could the Tories throw the election to escape responsibility for Brexit?’, to which the obvious answer is, er, no), and once a couple of readers had drawn my attention to the fact that the title didn’t represent the content I changed it. However, it remains posted in various Facebook groups with the same irresponsible headline, and as such has proved consistently popular. The (risible) notion that the Tories might throw an election they’re almost bound to win gives people false hope.

So many headlines these days promise to provide false hope or assuage rational fears. The ‘content’ that they advertise may not qualify as ‘false news’ but they do present hearsay as fact in a way that any professional journalist would immediately recognise as wilfully misleading and irresponsible. Motivated entirely by commercial considerations in the frenetic attention-impulse economy of the internet, they play on feelings rather than any rational assessment of the facts, with no or very little empirical basis. They are Barnum-style headlines, confirming the truth of whatever you choose to believe. A journalist friend of mine is very entertaining on the subject of blogs like mine, with their (our) assemblage of guesswork presenting constant insult to basic journalistic standards and conventions.

Dealing with news media nowadays demands much more careful and critical reading. As I argued at length here in another piece of guesswork, we need news outlets we can broadly trust. For this reason I blanch whenever I see the term ‘MSM’ (‘mainstream media’). Clearly media literacy involves awareness of such issues as misrepresentation, bias and framing. But bracketing together the Mail and Sun with The Guardian and the NYT is not an example of media literacy, but rather an instance of credulity**. In trying to make sense of British society it’s essential to recognise Murdoch and Dacre are not dissimilar to Mugabe in their attempts to control the political agenda. However, to pretend that the Guardian – for all its growing submission to commercial constraints and its occasional perpetuation of churnalism – is engaged in the same task is puerile and self-defeating. Progressives have to have a much more sophisticated and critical understanding of the media and the role of journalists, ownership and so on than Donald Trump does. His attacks on the free press take advantage of a mood of cynicism which is partly inspired by a lazy misapplication of Chomsky’s work. There’s nothing sophisticated about avoiding news headlines. Anyone doubting the truth of this should consider when the last time they confronted recent facts relating to the earth’s climate. It is an increasingly scary world but hiding from the consequences of our actions is not an adult response and it particularly behoves those of us with children to at least inform ourselves as to what is going on.

In relation to the impending election (in the debate around which our overheating planet has once again barely been mentioned), there is a miniscule chance, were the apparent momentum to continue, that Labour could sneak a victory. It would nonetheless require monumental effort. They have won the campaign but from such a low base of both support and expectation that they are still extremely unlikely to win a majority of seats. Having just spent a week in the UK, I haven’t noticed anyone getting excited in a way that would suggest the tide has actually turned with sufficient force.

Facebook posts like the one above (from a pro-Corbyn group) make me think it isn’t going to happen. They suggest to me that the most excitable are also the least likely to be active offline talking to potential voters. Actual reports from actual doorsteps suggest that, like it or not, resistance to Corbyn himself is palpable. Then there are pieces like this from responsible commentators, acknowledging the shift in mood but recognising that it almosr certainly won’t be sufficient. Most responses to the above post expressed hope that it was the case, but actually what they were not hope but optimism, not on what is true but what should be. But crossed fingers and closed eyes do not win elections.

What online Labour groups should be doing right now is not encouraging unfounded optimism but sharing tales from the doorstep and tips for how to argue with racists and those who don’t trust men with beards. They should also – and this does happen, just not nearly enough in my view – be organising groups of people to go campaigning, with those who live in safe seats offering to go to nearby constituencies that could do with a hand. It seems depressing and significant that few mention where in the country they are. 

Of course in many cases those desperate for any sign of hope are experiencing profound anxiety about the result and looking for reasons to get through another day. We are all vulnerable, but disabled people and pretty much all immigrants are right to be terrified. If the Tories win it is going to be absolutely horrible.

Voting in ten days’ time will not enough to stave off the most reactionary government of our lifetimes. Everyone who wants and needs Labour to win needs to get together with their local party and go canvassing. I myself am a partial hypocrite, in that I live in Italy so my involvement is by definition very limited. Knocking on the doors of my neighbours feels a bit moot. My Italian’s ok but wherever you live there is absolutely no point talking to anyone who doesn’t have a vote.

In any case, if I were in London I wouldn’t campaign for Labour in my constituency (Hackney South & Shoreditch). The result is always a foregone conclusion. I would find a constituency where they need help, volunteer, ask about local issues and then go banging on doors. Due to the iniquitous nature of the British Electoral System it may be the case that the candidate I’d be canvassing for wouldn’t be a Labour one, although given that the failure of the attempt to change that system can be laid squarely at the door of the former leader of the Liberal Democrats I’d be less likely to campaign for them than I would the Greens, Plaid or the SNP.

I suspect that a lot of recent Labour converts have little experience or knowledge of election campaigning. Some need to seek guidance. Sadly the current leadership doesn’t seem to be very adept at working the party machine, which does after all contain the odd Blairite gremlin. I’ve canvassed in several elections and I know that it requires humility and patience, things that do not abound in online politics. Engaging with often grumpy electors is painstaking and sometimes gruelling, but it does mean you’re actually participating in the election rather than just commenting from the digital fringes, where the only reason anyone might pay attention is if they already agree. Nevertheless, if Labour is to stand a chance of forming the next Government, lots of people who currently have no intention of voting will have to be persuaded to do so. That’s your job.

*That second post being a follow-up to the first one, and in turn twenty times more popular than the third most read article. Thankfully at that point the ‘rule of twenties’ breaks down.

** Certain individual BBC journalists, on the other hand, do see it as their responsibility to destroy the Labour Party’s chances of success. Emma Barnett in particular is a shining example of total unprofessionalism.

Are the Tories throwing the election to escape responsibility for Brexit? No, but…

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As I’ve argued all along would be the case, an orderly Brexit is turning out to be impossible. The early stages of negotiations have been like trying to make an omelette using shit instead of eggs. It was never going to be anything like a ‘clean divorce’ – that metaphor is just as unhelpful and misleading as Thatcher’s comparison of a national economy to that of a household. Instead the UK wants to unilaterally break a contract with 27 partners and define some sort of mutually beneficial relationship afterwards in the face of a politically justifiable desire from other partners to eliminate any possible benefit.

It may not be clear from reading the domestic press, but the UK Govt is currently undergoing galaxy-wide humiliation at its lack of preparedness, its self-delusion and its misplaced arrogance. Foreign news outlets tend to report what people like Juncker have actually said, not some self-serving distortion of it. The Tories and their pet bulldog newspapers can snarl emptily about sabotage and bluff and bluster about being ganged up on but the fact that May et al do not know what they are doing is now public knowledge from Torino to Timbuktu. There are probably peasants in the North Korean countryside having a good laugh at May’s plight over their breakfast of grass and bits of their house as they try to find light relief from thoughts of impending nuclear annihilation, not to mention spladgequards from planet Beetlewoox 4 scratching whatever they have for heads and wondering why this particular species of human known as The British insists on behaving in such a hostile manner towards its nearest neighbours.

At the same time, Corbyn’s Labour Party is rising slightly in the polls (not that much – it’s rather like someone you were sure was dead moving an eyelid slightly). Would Corbyn be better placed if this somewhow was to become known as the Lazurus election? That would place him in the not-exactly-to-be-coveted position of having to negotiate in the national interest for something which is against the national interest. After all, even the most ardent Brexiteers did this primarily for their own ideological jollification. Instead, the likeliest scenario is that following a probably slightly less emphatic Tory victory than we had feared, the UK will call off talks and resort to extreme hostilities as the economy collapses and the country quite possibly prepares North Korea-style for a war which may or may not ever arrive. If the whole thing wasn’t so depressing I would bet good money on some form of conscription being introduced before Article 50 expires. That’s the sort of thing merchants of chaos like Farage wanted all along and Cameron was prepared to risk for the sake of short-term political expediency.

The Tories are, of course, not about to throw the election. They want to achieve their long-standing ambition of crushing the godawful upstart Plebs Party for good*. The polls may well be misleading – Michael Ashcroft certainly made sure they were in 2015. But they must be having very serious qualms about the trap that they’re backing themselves into. The Tories have been able to get away with austerity by blaming everything that’s wrong in society on the previous Labour Government. No opposition means fewer scapegoats at a time when they need them like never before. This is not a good time to turn the country into a one-party state.

* It may be due to missing the irony in this sentence that some idiot on the Labour Party forum (possibly a troll) said that this article ‘reads like Tory Party propaganda’. This may mark an all-time high in terms how inane political debate on social media can go, I’ll keep you posted.

The Tories are ‘strong and stable’. What are Labour?

Theresa May gave a speech a few days ago in which she used the slogan ‘Strong and Stable’ twelve times in ten minutes. As a result she is being royally ridiculed on social media, with countless memes being diffused exponentially as I write.

A further outcome of the Tories’ faultless message discipline and the responses to it is that on 8th June millions of people will go and vote on the basis of strength and stability (DECLARATION: I fucking hate The Tories and will be voting Labour in June). Satirising the message will just serve to reinforce and spread it. That’s what happened in the last two general elections and in the referendum last summer. At different points each leading representative of the Leave campaign was torn to pieces on Facebook and Twitter for ‘overusing‘ the expression ‘take back control’. The result of the referendum showed that all that repitition was actually the slogan being implemented successfully – the Leave campaign even consulted Paul McKenna to help them drill the message into people’s heads. It’s not a rational process. ‘Strong and stable’ will have been chosen from a list of potential slogans after a rigorous process of testing it on groups of potential Tory voters.

The science of this is well-known but doesn’t always find acceptance on the left and doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact on the people at the top of the Labour Party. On doing some research I found out that Labour’s slogan for #GE2017 is ‘For the many, not the few’. Although I’ve been following the election the phrase didn’t spring into my head immediately as the Conservatives’ slogan will and tellingly there haven’t as yet been a furore about opposition politicians overusing it. I don’t get the impression it’s been tested – it sounds more like a phrase that our avuncular leader plucked out of thin air. On my Facebook page yesterday I saw a post on the Labour forum about John McDonnell’s 20 Pledges to Workers. Okay, twenty is a round number but it’s also a large one. As Owen Jones has repeatedly pointed out, only people who are actively interested in politics take an interest in what lies behind slogans, ie the details of policy. Each of those individual items may strike a chord with working people but in order to be effective they need to be framed into clear pithy messages whose memorability has been exhaustively put to the test. 

Nevertheless, the central slogans have been chosen and Labour leader, supporters and representatives need to put them into operation by repeating them as often as humanly possible. In the meantime we need to stop doing the Tories’ work for them by effectively advertising, whether in jest or not, what May’s Conservative Party stands for.

Is Tony Blair the right person to lead the anti-Brexit campaign?

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Tony Blair gave an excellent speech last week in which he laid out clearly the reasons why Brexit will be an absolute catastrophe for the British economy and called for people to rise up to stop it happening.

This has led members of several online pro-Remain groups to accept and promote him as leader of the campaign. They have argued that despite his lack popularity on the left, he was a popular Prime Minister who is associated with a happier time in national life and is also able to make a coherent and convincing case that Britain should not jump off the cliff into economic oblivion, as Theresa May is proposing.

Here’s an alternative point of view. It’s not an opinion I share; I think that on this issue Blair is right and that Brexit will be an absolute disaster (although not as much as a catastrophe for the UK as his war was for Iraq). Nevertheless this is the narrative that will dominate the debate should Blair continue to play a prominent role in the anti-Brexit campaign:

In 2003 we, the British people, made our will absolutely clear. We marched in our millions against Blair’s proposal that we participate in an illegal war in Iraq. We made abundantly clear that we saw through the dodgy dossier and the machinations of the government spin doctors. We rose up throughout the country to say very clearly: no. We don’t believe you and we don’t want your war.

In 2016 we, the British people, took part in a referendum over our continued membership of the European Union. The outcome was tight, but clear: the will of the British people is that Britain must leave the EU. 

In both cases an out-of-touch and arrogant political elite with no respect for democracy has sought to deny the will of the British people. The first time they were successful. As a consequence, the Middle East was plunged into an abyss of violence which led directly to the refugee crisis and the rise of Isis. We sacrificed the lives of thousands of our own soldiers. We saw bombs on the London tube and bullets on the streets of Paris and Brussels. All because our leaders refused to listen to our voice.

Now Tony Blair, whose lies led us to this point, tells us we should rise up. Against whom? Against ourselves. Against our own will, as expressed peacefully at the ballot box. We are told warned of disaster by a man who we know for certain we cannot, must not trust ever again.

This is a sovereign and democratic country. We have to respect the will of the people, and that means we should have nothing but contempt for leaders who flout it and do not lead the country but instead seek continually to mislead it.

As I say, I don’t share this perspective. Should Blair continue to be associated with the pro-EU forces, however, it will be the line pushed by Nigel Farage, who has spoken out several times against Blair’s war, and the central point hammered home by the Tory Party and their newspapers. After all, we have a wilfully amnesiac media which will happily let those members of the current Government who supported the war off the hook. The current impasse with regard to Brexit, in which no one who understands it is seriously in favour – and I would put Theresa May in that category, notwithstanding her inopportune political ambitions – is thus partly a consequence of the war in Iraq. Many who voted to leave will have had that historic insult to democracy foremost in their minds.

The above argument must also be a factor in Jeremy Corbyn’s conservative strategy with regard to Brexit. He knows that Labour is connected in the public mind with a lack of concern for the national mood, and therefore has made no attempt to shift it. His lack of leadership acumen has been made very apparent. He could, last June, have rejected the terms and conduct of the referendum in the first place and attempted to use his principled leadership – recalling explicitly his opposition to the war  – to lead the country in a different direction. It’s also shameful that he’s not open to the kinds of suggestions made by Caroline Lucas (that progressive forces should push for a radically different kind of Brexit that prioritises our values). It would be very ironic if one consequence of Corbyn’s failure to provide leadership with regard to Brexit would be his replacement by someone who represents everything that he (supposedly) opposes. And if we know one thing about Blair and the Blairites, it’s that they will seize any opportunity to regain power over The Labour Party.

Instead of letting Blair forward his own agenda, then, those opposed to Britain leaving the EU would be much better advised to look to figures like Caroline Lucas and Nicola Sturgeon to lead the way. Tony Blair must not play any significant role in the campaign. Those of us who both oppose Brexit and marched against the Iraq War cannot allow the Tories and Ukip to get away with using one grievous and obnoxious insult to democracy as a reason for supporting another.

Corbyn has put Labour on the same side of history as Farage, Le Pen and Trump

screen-shot-2016-06-24-at-08-08-18-440x286I’ve always had a huge amount of affection for Jeremy Corbyn. I’ve heard him speak eloquently and forcefully on countless occasions in support of excellent but underpublicised causes. I supported him in the first Labour leader ballot and I urged everyone I knew to do the same. Like most people who care about such things I was furious that the other candidates hadn’t even had the integrity to oppose the Government’s Welfare Bill. When he says that Theresa May is on the wrong side of history in inviting Trump for a state visit, I’m in full agreement with him (although that particular phrase has been overused beyond repair).

However, I didn’t vote for him last November in the second ballot because there were signs that he and his team didn’t have the leadership and communication skills to face the challenge. They seemed unaware of how to research, design, test and transmit compelling slogans and images in order to influence political debate. (Here is an excellent example of what they could have done.) What’s more, there was abundant evidence from former shadow cabinet members who were by no stretch of the imagination Blairites of a lack of basic coordination, so that policies which did emerge were often contradicted or cancelled out by unplanned and haphazard leadership statements.

However, the main reason I didn’t vote for Corbyn against Smith wasn’t his incompetence or the weakness of the opposing candidate. It was his betrayal over Brexit. Although by no means everyone who voted for the UK to leave the EU was a supporter of the far-right, the EU referendum was a nationalist trap which the then PM Cameron, motivated by a mixture of short-term desperation and monumental complacency, fell right into. 

Corbyn’s efforts during the referendum campaign were lacklustre, even after one of his own MPs was shot dead by an activist of a terrorist group closely connected to Ukip. His immediate call for implementation of Article 50 was an indication of his lack of political judgment and a betrayal of those who elected him leader. That he should, in this week’s parliamentary vote, exploit the most important issue in recent British history in the attempt to establish himself as a firm leader shows that he and his team have no understanding of what’s at stake and seem to have taken seriously Tory press propaganda that the UK has a future outside the EU. All expert advice before and after the referendum makes it absolutely clear that it doesn’t.

By obliging Labour MPs to vote in favour of whatever Tory plans for Brexit turn out to be, we can only hope that Corbyn has placed himself on the losing side of history. Where he could and should have mobilised Labour’s extensive campaigning machinery and put his very strong core of dedicated supporters to work arguing that the whole Brexit project is a reactionary folly and that the referendum was a farce, he’s divested himself of moral authority and his leadership has ultimately come to serve the socially regressive, racist and climate-lying agenda of the international far-right. The future of parliamentary opposition now lies in a progressive coalition led by people like Caroline Lucas, Mhairi Black, Nicola Sturgeon and, why not (since Nick Clegg’s career is hopefully still dead and buried) Tim Farron. Anti-Brexit Labour MPs, i.e. those who had the integrity to vote against the Government and against their party leadership this week clearly have a role to play. They represented the majority of Labour voters. But as of now the leadership of the Labour Party is, for all Corbyn’s personal decency, at best irrelevant and at worst an obstruction in the way of building something better.

Oaxaca: Tourism, Tlayudas and Terrorist Teachers

naI don’t know how many German-speaking branches of Neurotics Anonymous there are outside the Bundesrepublik. There’s probably a couple in Austria, and possibly a Geriaticneurotikenanonymous in Paraguay, but that’s beside the Punkt. We were surprised to find one in Oaxaca, Mexico. For a moment I was tempted to go entlag to one of their meetings, but I was visiting the city on holiday with my wife, herein known as Ch, who, despite my very best efforts, does not sprechen sie Deutsch, and in any case mein Volkabeln isn’t quite up to the Mark. Plus I’m not neurotic. Wirklich.dsc_0934Everybody loves Oaxaca. The first thing that Mexicans talk about whenever the place is mentioned is the food, which is indeed delicious and hard to find good versions of elsewhere. Mole is the most iconic dish – it’s actually a family of dishes of immense complexity. Coloradito, the one most associated with Oaxaca and also the most picante, is made with 36 ingredients, including chocolate, chillies, fruit, nuts, spices of various kinds, pumpkin seeds and about, er, 28 other things. Vanesa, a Oaxacan friend of Ch’s who we met up with in Mexico City shortly after we arrived, got very excited when telling us about all the eating we’d be able to do on our holiday, and then very angry when she moved on to tell us about los maestros – the teachers. Of whom more later.

Oaxaca (pronounced waHAca) is the name of both the city and the state. The latter is vast, and cut in half by mountains. After we leave the city it takes us 12 hours by bus to get to Puerto Escondido on the coast and it’s only 85 miles mientras el cuervo vuela. The rugged terrain isolates communities, which means that Oaxaca is the country’s most ethnically diverse state, with an indigenous population of 48% (mostly Zapotec and Mistec), the second highest in Mexico after the Mayan Peninsula, where most of the population are…Welsh (just testing). corbyn2A wander around the Museum of Culture testifies to this. ‘Oaxacan’ culture unifies all sorts of traditions with their own belief systems, cultural artifacts and artisan technologies. The many local markets and the makeshift stalls spread on the ground in the town’s squares by people from often distant villages show off handcrafted and painted wooden sculptures called alebrijes, and intricately woven and brightly dyed tapetes, huipiles, sarapes and the ubiquitous rebozos. Some of these artefacts we have seen elsewhere in Mexico, but we get something of a surprise on entering the adjacent church and former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán when we see an image of someone we recognise from home (see photo). It’s by no means the only connection Jeremy Corbyn has with Mexico. His wife, Laura Álvarez, is a human rights lawyer who also runs a business importing chocolate made by indigenous communities. Little else is known about her (except, presumably, by him), so it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility that she did some sort of deal over local produce and insisted that a stained-glass window image of her husband be installed as part of the agreement. Certainly there is no shortage of chocolate and chocolate products on sale in the UNESCO-approved colonial centre, along with hundreds of varieties of mezcal, of which I sadly only get to try about half.

In the Zócalo (the main town square) most of the people selling things seem to be of indigenous origin, and so do most of the people protesting. The centre of the plaza has been turned into an Occupy-style camp. These are the famous teachers. I’m still trying to clarify what the situation is with them as their activities inspire a considerable amount of revulsion and rage amongst Mexicans I’ve met elsewhere. Reading their banners and the sheets they’ve hung up setting out their case and briefly chatting with some of them helps to make things clearer. Their movement, led by the dissident teachers’ union CNTE, has been fighting for decades for decent wages and proper schools and over the years their struggle has to some extent become instituionalised, particularly under the leadership of the phenomenally controversial Elba Esther Gordillo. One key date in the long history (detailed here) was May 2006, when police fired on striking teachers in Oaxaca. This led to a seven-month state of siege in the city. State forces unleashed massive repression, which to some extent continues – police vehicles armed with enormous machine guns are a regular sight around the city centre – and was stepped up in response to furious protests after 43 poor indigenous students from the neighbouring state of Guerrero were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the army in September 2014. More recently teachers from Oaxaca, Michoacán and Chiapas have been striking and protesting against President Peña Nieto’s asinine education reforms, which seem partly designed to provoke and destroy the unions; they also attempt to sabotage the carrying-out of elections by attacking and burning polling stations, and very regularly sequester road-toll booths and block major highways. It is this kind of action which enrages locals like Vanesa, who are simply unable to go about their daily lives as a result. I sympathise with the frustration of people like her – I have never had to live with such massive and constant disruption. But I also grew up in a country with a decent school system where there were properly-remunerated teachers, plentiful materials and classrooms with roofs. Plus I’m aware that at least some of the opprobrium towards the teachers is at least related to racism; that certainly has been the case among members and supporters of successive national governments. This is one of those issues on which I have to bow to the greater wisdom of people who properly live in Mexico.justiceSo, Oaxaca is a complex place. Maybe a third eye would help make sense of things. In the market I buy a t-shirt featuring an image of Maria Sabina, the Queen of Mushrooms. She became an international celebity in the 1960s, attracting seekers of ancestral cosmic wisdom such as (it was rumoured) Dylan, Lennon, Jagger and Richards. She herself wasn’t impressed by the hordes of new arrivals. She was a curandera, for whom the point of taking psilocybins was not to find the divine but to heal sickness. Although we don’t visit her dsc_0616village, it is still on the tourist trail – every time I wear the t-shirt over the next few months, from Havana to Angkor Wat, I receive masonic nods and winks from those who share my apparent knowledge of arcane hallucinogenic rituals. We do, however, end up taking a trip: a bus excursion to Monte Albán to look at Some More Pyramids. We are lucky to be assigned a tourguide with some alternative theories to explain why some of the stone carvings depict people with deformed limbs, the upshot of which is that archeologists are all liars, historians are full of shit and we ourselves are a bit thick and should go to infowars.com if we can bear to learn the real Truth about the world. We also visit the jaw-dropping petrified waterfall and the hot springs at Hierve l’Água. Afterwards we share a collective taxi with some other tourists in order to rejoin the main bus. Halfway along an otherwise deserted track, the truck comes to an unexpected stop, and a representative of a small contingent of men requests that we all get out of the vehicle and into another one with no immediate explanation. Some of us start to suspect that something a bit kidnappy might be underway, but thankfully the new driver reassures us, explaining that the place where we got out marks the boundary between two taxi concessions, and that there have been ‘problems’ in the past when drivers from one village have encroached on the other’s territory. This makes me wonder if the preponderance of recovery groups in Mexico might be somewhere related; perhaps one cartel controls all the Narcotics Anonymous groups in a given town and another armed gang rakes in the income from the meetings in the adjacent pueblo. I can’t imagine that such a situation would be particularly good for anyone’s sense of serenity.carvingAfter we’ve tromped up and a fair few pyramids in the 40 degree heat, taken more photos than we will ever have time to look at and visited enough artisanal workshops to last the lifetimes of several Aztec gods, we are all keen to get back to Oaxaca, sink a couple of mechiladas and echar una siesta. So we’re delighted to hear we’ll be taking in one more attraction: we’re going to see some black pots being made. The black pots turn out to be useless, at least for their primary purpose of containing liquids. If you put water in them, it apparently goes all murky and you can’t drink it. They are nonetheless very pretty decorative objects, with their black sheen achieved by polishing them before firing them. Oh. It turns out that I am the only person in the world who finds pottery boring*. Everyone else wanders round the shop cooing at the crockery on display, or at least they do until the heavens intervene. Unfortunately the shop is open to the elements, which is a shame because the elements are in a very bad mood; like us, they’re probably a bit tired and just want to be driven back to the hotel. They descend on the place and smash bits of it to pieces while we cower in the corners and try to avoid getting lacerated by shards of falling pottery. In fact the weather gods have done us a major favour, because as soon as the torrent ceases we wade across the car park and get back in the van.

There’s a limit to what we can see in and around the city in three or so days. You could easily spend a month in Oaxaca State and not even get round to a third of the places you are recommended to visit. It is the fourth most visited state in the country, and also happens to be the second poorest, with 76% of the population living in extreme poverty. In my English language examining job I often pose this conundrum to candidates when the topic of tourism arises. It suggests to me that tourism is not a good or fair strategy for developing a region. Oaxaca does not suffer from a lack of promotion or even a shortage of visitors, and it’s rich in terms of both natural and cultural resources. It has a range of outstanding natural landscapes and no shortage of well-preserved ruins reflecting its historical complexity, the range of civilisations that have existed there. However, while most images of Oaxaca depict things of indigenous origin, whether archaeological sites or local products, in tourism-related jobs indigenous people themselves are rarely seen. This must be partly because of racism, but it is also clearly related to education. People whose schools do not have books and roofs are far less likely to acquire the skills necessary to obtain such jobs. Compared to a national average of 26%, only 5% of Oaxaca’s indigenous population reaches middle or higher education.cartoonThere is also the question of who has money to invest to take advantage of all the visitors. Most mid-range places we stay in happen to be owned by foreigners, and at the level of higher-end tourism, it’s international money that dominates – indeed it often physically displaces both local investment in addition to causing the eviction of local people and the destruction of natural environments. A recent and spectacular example of the latter were the mangroves in Cancun. Where tourism does create jobs for local people, they tend to be of poor quality – short-term, badly-paid and often very exploitative. Betting on tourism as a development strategy also has an opportunity cost. It replaces other forms of development and means that everything is valued in terms of its potential appeal to visitors. This is something I hear all the time in IELTS exams, regardless of the topic: parks are good because tourists like them. National cinema is useful because it promotes the country and might encourage tourists to visit. Museums and galleries are important because tourists seem to like them. The success of this ideology is demonstrated by the fact that to many people it seems to be a natural way of thinking, a common sense point of view. Drawing people’s attention to the fallacy of it (not exactly my job, but what the hey) is like the joke about one fish remarking to another on the temperature of the water. It’s an ideology which lends itself to exploitation by private interests. In ‘The Shock Doctrine’ Naomi Klein detailed how after the Asian tsunami of 2004 fishermen along the coasts of Sri Lanka and Thailand were displaced by hotel developments. In the case of Mexico, we learn of a similar situation towards the end of the film ‘Y Tu Mama También’: the young family who the three main characters have become friends with on the beach (filmed in Huatulco, Oaxaca) will soon be forced to leave their beachside home because of a new holiday resort. The same dynamic is in operation around the world, and not just along coastlines, but also in major cities, as the urban geographer (and my personal friend) David Harvey explores in some detail here. As he explains, tourism is a great product for capitalists to invest in because, unlike a vacuum cleaner or a mobile phone, it is instantly and infinitely consumable, with no product cycle. There is no limit to the amount that tourists can consume. Meanwhile local people are locked outside this endless festival of superfluous consumption, and in many situations are left with no other available means of survival but to sit on the pavement and try to sell whatever they have to the tourists. As for how people excluded in this way feel, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze tries to put herself in their huaraches in her brilliant poem ‘Third World Girl‘:

Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze poem: ‘THIRD WORLD GIRL’ from Tilt Spoken Word on Vimeo.

The poem also addresses cultural appropriation. Oaxaca is important to Mexico in a similar way to how the Northeast is important to Brazil. In both cases the region provides symbols and icons which are central to national identity, and in both cases the people of the region are amongst the most deprived in the country. One such Mexican national emblem is the rebozo. In summer 2015 the Franz Mayer Museum held a special exhibition on Frida Kahlo’s use of the garment, titled, revealingly in English, Made in Mexico**. (The same exhibition had been held in London a year earlier). We learn from the information on display that this outfit is “one of the feminine Mexican garments par excellence … it has (much) meaning in the creation of the identity of women and the country.” The text that introduces the exhibition does not speak mainly of the rebozo, but of national identity:

‘Mexico is a rich tapestry in which multiple threads are interwoven. Its long and tumultuous history, from the ancient pre-Hispanic towns to the modernity of its urban culture, has brought many influences and ideas to the country, adapting to a cosmovision and way of life singularly Mexican. The decorative arts, an integral part of Mexican culture, reflect the intersection of traditional culture, colonial legacy and contemporary and political life. The rebozo has been – and continues to be – a resistant emblem of Mexican identity.’

In the words of Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, what the Mexican state and its elite values is not its indigenous population, but an image of it. It then sells Mexico on the global market using images of indigenous people and indigenous products, but denies the people themselves the education that would give them the chance to exploit those things for themselves if they chose to do so. It’s comforting and flattering to think that our visit to Oaxaca helped develop the region in some small way. We certainly found it a deeply enriching experience. But I don’t believe that tourism is a equitable or sustainable way to develop a region or a city. Social and economic policies should focus on improving the living standards and human potential of the people who live in a particular place, and not the experience of those who are merely there on holiday. To which I suppose the only logical corollary is: if I ever go back to Oaxaca, I very much hope that I have a worse time than I did on my first visit.

* José Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’ (which I also mentioned yesterday, oddly enough) is partly an essay In Praise of Pottery. Those bits of it are profoundly dull.

** I wrote a piece in Spanish about it in Spanish here (it’s in Spanish).

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“All I know is what’s on the Internet”: All heil President Troll

161202Rall.jpgIn China eleven years ago I noticed something surprising about democracy and something disturbing about the world economy. They both involved discrediting and devaluing. In the case of the world economy, what I noticed in China indicated to me that the chief function of neoliberal globalisation was to reduce western wages and conditions to a Chinese level. I also noticed that the notion of democracy had lost a lot of its value, especially in comparison with the student uprising of fifteen years earlier. Since that time global events have, to paraphrase Thomas Pynchon, been proceeding in accordance with an ominous logic. Continue reading ““All I know is what’s on the Internet”: All heil President Troll”

Corbyn, Climate Change and the British media

Articles published in the British press are read and believed far beyond the UK. A good, or rather really rather bad, example of this is the Sunday Times’ concocted story about climate science in 2009. The story resulted from a successful plot by what we might as well call the pro-climate change lobby to troll climate scientists by sending so many freedom of information requests about their work so as it to render it impossible. One email among the millions they acquired in which one scientist asked another about the best way to present some information was seized upon by a climate change troll, who found a principle-free journalist at Rupert Murdoch’s flagshit periodical to turn it into a story about fraudulent climate science. The story flew around the world at great speed, and glasses were clinked in corporate offices right around the rapidly warming planet. The cause of investigating the causes of the changes in the world’s climate was set back for several years, possibly for good. Or, in this case, for very, very, bad.

What does this have to do with Jeremy Corbyn? Well, as we all at some level know, and as we all to some degree refuse to accept, the changes necessary for us to avoid the nightmare scenario of a very rapid change in temperatures are extremely radical, and they must be taken immediately. Vested interests must not just be challenged and persuade to cooperate — the power they wield must be wrested from them. As Naomi Klein points out at length, if companies such as Exxon and Shell had openly admitted the facts of climate change and its implications much earlier, such earthshaking changes would not now be necessary. But they didn’t. They hid the truth, and they paid enormous amounts of money to politicians and opinion formers to create confusion and the appearance of uncertainty about the basic facts of climate science (there’s even a new word to describe this — agnotology). So now that climate change is upon as, and with droughts assailing some parts of the planet while others slowly begin to disappear under unfathomable quantities of water, the question of how we are going to find the resources necessary to deal with all this, and how we are going to wrest the power away from those who value higher and higher numbers on a computer screen over our common ability to survive becomes so pressing and so compelling that it is hardly ever asked — or, at least, the issue is rarely mentioned in the media.

Where are the voices in mainstream politics today who are even beginning to address these questions? Is democracy even the means by which we will find answers, or will we just find that authoritarian capitalism already has all the solutions (in a nutshell: let most people die, continue to deny the causes, instruct the populace to blame the victims, and lock up or kill anyone who protests)? Well, there are but a few. One person who is doing his best to get hold of the wheel and steer us away from the edge of the cliff is the afore-mentioned record-breakingly popular Labour politician Jeremy Corbyn. So how are the British media, respected as they are far beyond the UK’s borders, responding to that challenge? Well, reader, they’re trying to destroy his reputation and his credibility as quickly as they can. They’re making absolutely sure that within any plausible future scenario there will be no visible political alternative to the dogma that no matter how big the problem, the market will be able to fix it. That’s the market dominated by companies like Exxon and Shell, who knew the facts about the effects of their activities forty years ago but hid that information so as to protect their profits. In the media market control lies in the hands of companies like News International, which conspires to discredit climate scientists and potentially disruptive politicians and whose stories, no matter how dishonestly obtained or how inaccurate, dictate the news agenda right across the world.

Ideally, a politician who took up the cause of the climate catastrophe would be acceptable to the mainstream media. He or she (wouldn’t it be great if it was a woman?!) would be feted by the political establishment and her or his prescriptions for how to address the crisis would be welcomed (they would also be a lot more radical than Corbyn’s, but that’s beside the point here). That’s what would happen in a perfect world. But it hasn’t, and it won’t. Anyone who challenges the political agenda according to which the habitat that earth affords us must be sacrificed to feed the insatiable needs of the global market, anyone who looks like they could potentially block the pipeline which runs directly from our suffering to their bank accounts, must be destroyed. That is one very significant aspect of what is happening right now in British politics and in the UK media.