EFL worksheet: Russell Brand’s new podcast

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The British standup comedian and political gobbermouth Russell Brand has gone back to school (well, university) (well, SOAS) to learn more about politics, and he’s sharing his new knowledge in the form of an excellent new podcast in which he (making the most of his celebrity connections) interviews leading figures from areas related to religion and global politics. This lesson uses the first episode, which is an interview with the political philosopher Brad Evans called ‘Can we really stop terror?’. It will work well with upper-int(+)/advanced EFL/ESOL students with an interest in  global issues and also with EAP/IELTS classes.

Worksheet

  1. Preparing to listen

On your phone or tablet, google the following to find out who or what they are and then compare notes with a partner:

Russell Brand                      Ed Miliband             Brad Evans               SOAS

Now see if you can find anything they have in common.

  1. Podcast – gapfill

Try to identify the missing words. Remember that a) you won’t be able to understand every word and b) you don’t need to!

Part 1 (0.50 – 8.43)

  1. I’m doing a three-year __________ in Religion and Global Politics.
  2. His work introduced me to the relationship between governments and _________.
  3. …the sudden lurch to the __________ as demonstrated by Brexit and the rise of Trump.
  4. I realized this was a very complex world and I realized I didn’t have the artillery to engage in this __________.
  5. What do you say to someone like me who feels __________ with politics but doesn’t know quite where to begin?
  6. Our power to change the world is still __________ to these nationalistic models.
  7. We feel __________ because we know change is not going to happen through those kinds of mechanisms.
  8. One of the purposes of an academic is to ask how we can __________ the right types of questions.
  9. What is the historical __________? What makes this moment this moment?
  10. Why is it that we often put the blame on the __________ of the most vulnerable?

Now check your answers with your partner.

Part 2 (8.43 – 17.57)

  1. There is no such thing as Muslim __________ separate from US imperialism.
  2. The term terror has a much broader historical __________.
  3. If you look at the old colonial seafaring powers, they had the __________.
  4. On the one hand you had powers trying to establish __________.
  5. The best way to understand any political regime is to understand the relationships of __________ that it’s engaged in.
  6. Liberalism says it has a __________ over these terms – universality, rights, security, justice – but it doesn’t.
  7. He doesn’t stipulate one precise point about what this shared universal __________ system actually looks like.
  8. The idea that liberalism can transform the world for the better is __________.
  9. People are denied the most fundamental political right, which is the right to __________.
  10. You have these impoverished communities who are taught by the media and people like __________ to fear these people who are deeply vulnerable.

Now check your answers with your partner.

Part 3 (17.57 – 26.07)

  1. Whose story is the __________ story, and how do they get to maintain it?
  2. You get people to __________ the conditions they should find intolerable.
  3. Global capitalism today doesn’t require __________ of the world’s population.
  4. Why doesn’t that idea get __________ more?
  5. People are working in such __________ environments today, they can just turn on the TV and be filtered a message which is comforting to them.
  6. It’s what the late Zygmunt Bauman called ‘__________’.
  7. We live in an age of what I’ve called ‘__________’.
  8. You have to __________ them from trying to achieve the kind of lifestyles that we’ve been selling to them.
  9. The ways in which certain elites are operating is having __________ consequences for people on the planet.
  10. One of the questions we need to ask is ‘where is the __________?’.

Now check your answers with your partner.

  1. Discussion

Now you’re going to have a conversation about what you’ve heard. Think on your own for two minutes about the following question:

How does the conversation relate to a) your life b) your country c) your view of the world?

You can take some notes if you wish. Look up or ask your teacher for any vocabulary you might need.

Now get into a group of three or four and compare your reactions to the podcasts for ten minutes. One person in the group will need to report back to the whole class on what is said so they need to write down any interesting points. Remember that you don’t have to agree with each other – if you have different points of, explore them, but remember that this isn’t Facebook – be respectful!

Homework

Using your phone, either with a classmate or on your own, make a 5-minute podcast in which (similarly to what you just did in class) you talk about your reaction(s) to the podcast. You might want to listen to the rest of the podcast before you start, but you don’t have to.

HEALTH WARNING: You might find the ambivalence of your students upon hearing that 60-70% of the world’s population is surplus to the requirements of global capitalism somewhat dispiriting.

I love Cuba

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Of all the abuse that the term ‘authentic’ has come in for over the years, nothing can have prepared it for the outright torture it is subjected to in an advert currently showing on the metro in Rome for authenticcuba.com. Ordinary life for the average Cuban apparently revolves around a succession of five-star hotel lobbies, exclusive spa treatments and gourmet meals of the very highest international standards.

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Although Cuban society is changing, it hasn’t quite yet reached that point of being synonymous with luxury and exclusivity. Maybe the people who made the ad got it confused with Dubai. As an erstwhile/occasional radical Marxist communist revolutionary type who also happens to speak Spanish, I’d always felt slightly ashamed of never having been there when it was more authentically egalitarian. My wife hadn’t either, because early until last year she worked for a (large human rights organisation which isn’t recognised there) defending Caribbean human rights and thus always assumed that she wouldn’t be allowed in. But given that (as of May 2016) we were living not very far away (in Mexico) and that she was leaving her job after seven years, it seemed not to foolish not to give it a whirl. As it happened, the day we arrived was the day after she’d left that job, and it only occurred to us as we approached immigration that if her name was on some sort of list it wasn’t like the hyperefficient Cuban bureaucracy would have removed it in the preceding 24 hours. It’ll be fine, I blithely reassured her, just as a uniformed official stepped in front of us and asked us where we were from and what we did for a living. ¡Ih!

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After 15 or so minutes of slightly evasive light interrogation we were free to enjoy Cuba’s manifold splendors and contradictions, the most prominent of which was occasioned by our very presence there. While in Cuba we we spent about $100 a day (in CUC, the convertible dollar equivalent as opposed to the peso nacional, which is worth 25 times less), five times what very many Cubans working full-time in professional jobs earn in a month. Now, let’s imagine that where you live there was a huge numbers of visitors to whom $3,000 dollars had the same value as $20 has for you. You’d probably badger them, a bit. You’d might even learn to play the guitar, just in case they liked that sort of thing. You’d try to provide whatever services might be to their liking. So it’s easy to see why so many doctors, university professors, teachers and so on are driving taxis, renting out their flats or offering up the odd autentico sex act.

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For various reasons (some frankly superstitious and some eminently sensible, given the embargo and the dangers of suddenly spiralling inequality), there are stringent restrictions on private commerce. Some forms of economic activity are allowed, others prohibited. The fact that food is not on the list makes for a startling contrast with Mexico. If you accepted all the offers you receive for cheap and tasty food in Mexico City you’d be dead within 15 minutes; in Cuba, even with (by local standards) an infinite amount of cash to spend, you can still find yourself if not hungry then certainly a bit frustrated.

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Access to a small quantity of some daily essentials is guaranteed via a system of rationing. Every family receives a small amount of rice, sugar, matches, and oil every month. It’s not enough, but it is essential. Petrol is also cheap thanks to an ongoing (although maybe not for much longer) agreement with Venezuela, and public transport costs next to nothing. Healthcare and education are famously provided by the state. Both housing and private cars seem to be passed down and carefully maintained on a minimum of resources. People get by, some barely. A successfully waylaid tourist late in the month can mean the difference between eating and going hungry.

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The dual currency policy is a useful educational tool for tourists. In other countries, the existence of a single currency disguises the fact that there are different economies in society, some in direct conflict with others. The London housing market is a good examples of this, and the imbalances in Mexican society, between those (like us) who can happily throw around 70 pesos on a cup of coffee and those for whom that sum represents 16 hours’ hard work, would be less avoidable if the poorest and the richest didn’t share the same currency.

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One thing that actually shocked me about Cuba was the (lack of) printed media. There is essentially one national newspaper (‘Granma’) and it is absolutely dire, like a monochrome and cheaply-printed edition of Worker’s Power from 1985. Even that is not very easy to track down. Given that we unfortunately didn’t have access to TV in any of the places we’re staying, it was hard to figure out how state propaganda operates. One taxi driver was kind enough to explain it to me. According to him, political control is partly exercised through the (very) locally-based Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. The soldiers we saw knocking on doors around the country may be connected to this system. It apparently involves a lot of gossip and neighbourhood spying, like what Jane Jacobs called ‘eyes on the street’ but with a more sinister edge. Careless talk could mean an uncomfortable visit to or from the police. In the last few years Raúl Castro has unleashed crackdowns on dissent, especially in 2009 when he took power. There are numerous reports of arbitrary detentions and of those who fall out of favour losing their livelihoods.

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Although Mexico and Cuba are obviously very different societies, visiting the latter while living in the former made for some inevitable but hopefully not too misleading comparisons. In Mexico everyone complains, all the time, and quite rightly, about everything connected to the Government and the rateros who run things. There’s an extensive privately-owned media, subject to more brutal forms of censorship. In Cuba I heard no one talk about corruption. That doesn’t mean there is none; in a way Cubans are both better-placed to know what goes on behind the scenes and also less likely to be able to find out. The Internet suggests that there is a lot of bribery and theft (there are lots of references to informal ‘sociolismo’ and ‘amiguismo’), and the fact that the Government has publicly cracked down on it suggests it is an issue, but for all that people we met complained about the difficulties of their daily lives, it wasn’t mentioned.

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I did get the sense that inequality is a growing problem. Most taxi drivers were chatty and open. They are among those to have gained most from the opening up, making up, along with waiters and (apparently, inevitably, depressingly) prostitutes, a brand-new middle class. Both they and the owners of the casas particulares (licensed private guesthouses) we stayed in seemed pleased and grateful for the opportunities they’ve been given. Of course, by definition we had limited chances to talk to people who’ve been left out of the tourist boom. It is also worth mentioning that almost everyone we came into contact with through the tourist industry was white.

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The lack of Internet was something I at first found frustrating and then refreshing. Going online in any form involves buying a card for a certain number of minutes, or at least joining a queue and then doing so. Then there are only certain places where wifi can be accessed. As a result, such places are social spaces where people hang out, talk to friends abroad and use the internet as a public good. The restrictions may be motivated by political control and austerity, but for ten days I enjoyed the novelty of my enforced exile from the online world, obviously another privilege that very few Cubans share. It felt a bit like those resorts where you eat not what you want but what’s good for you, like holidaying in a high-end monastery. The temporary absence of traffic, internet, mass media, and the pressure of advertising felt like a breath of fresh air to me, but I know that for locals it is stifling, a source of immense frustration that in many cases can’t be contained, leading them to try their luck on rickety boats. The numbers leaving the island have increased since early 2013, when exit visas were automatically granted for the first time.

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I did pick up the sense, however, that people in Cuba do still share an ethic. This is not the same as subscribing to a political ideology. The only times I heard socialism mentioned was in museums, on street murals and the couple of times I read the newspaper, and in publicly-broadcast announcements. There does seem to be a patriotic spirit which takes some pride in the achievements of the Revolution. How young people relate to that I have no idea. Graffiti artists and bloggers are among those who have been swept up in Raúl’s crackdowns on dissent. Cubans also face restrictions on movement around the island, a reality probably lost of most of those who, like us, sail round for the sake of air-con, speed and convenience on buses lines which are only available to tourists.

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Not spending all our time looking at our phones means we get talking to other tourists. Some English people we make friends with on the beach are kind enough to pass on a recentish (sympathetic, but not uncritical) biography of Fidel Castro written by a German journalist in 2007. For all the drama of the Revolution itself and the immense sacrifices made to keep it going, with Cuban citizens occasionally removed to an age before the invention of the combustion engine and tales of Havana residents (illegally) farming pigs on their balconies, you’d have to admit that ideological madness was a factor in its survival. At one point in the 1960 Castro declared himself to be against all forms of private trade, right down to the ownership and exploitation of fruit trees. Even the most rabidly pro-Castro leftist would have to wince at some points in the story.

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At the time the book was written the rising star of Cuban politics was Ricardo Alarcón. He was central to the policy of opening up some areas of private trade in the face of absolute economic oblivion. I asked a taxi driver what had become of him since. He’s off the scene, was the reply. Later I learned that he fell out of favour with Raúl and now works is an administrator in a hospital somewhere to the West of Havana, presumably earning the standard $20 a month.

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Not that there’s anything ignoble about working in a hospital, of course. Cuban has some excellent medical services (I didn’t get the chance to find out how the glowing tales we hear abroad are reflect reality). But if those doctors had the chance to go and work abroad, would the system survive? This is just one of very many conundrums which a visit to Cuba opens up. I spent a great deal of my time trying to work out the relationships between embargoes, imports and exports, balance of payments, foreign currency, emigration, remittances…as for whether or not tourism is a basis for development, other Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are not inspiring examples of sustainability or stability. Decent education, and health systems, a lack of widespread violence and corruption all seem unambiguously laudable. The post-Soviet Special Period (or at least the way it’s represented in this excellent-if-a-little-too-effusive documentary) is a genuinely heroic example of popular austerity and enforced environmental sustainability, one which I’ve sometimes thought that (as I’ve argued before) Greece could have learned some lessons from had it not opted to stay inside the EU.

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Given the particular historical moment at which our visit took place, pretty much everyone we talked to told us it might be the last chance to see the country before it ‘changed’. I was and am sceptical of such predictions. The Government is keeping economic and political activity tightly controlled and I didn’t detect any signs of insurrectionary sentiment. Nevertheless, Obama in his last lame duck year did make some very significant changes in the relationship between the countries, and the pressure of big money will probably mean that even the most reactionary government in US history may not be able to reverse the momentum. Maybe they don’t feel the need. After all, Cuban Americans are neither as powerful nor as useful as they were in the 1960s.

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Visiting Cuba taught me a lot. Since it’s one of the those places where it’s hard to relax and play the role of the tourist it problematised my view of the world in a useful way. Emotionally I still feel that the Revolution was worthwhile, and am inclined to believe the sacrifices since then are to some extent justified. It’s easy to forget that in the case of East Germany the Communist regime was partly fueled by revulsion and horror at what had preceded it, and in a similar way I don’t think anyone beyond far-right Republicans is keen to return to the brutal repression of the Machado and Batista years. But then, while browsing in a tourist shop I picked up a book of photographs taken by one of Fidel’s sons of those who visited him over the last few years. There  was El Jefe Maximo with Lula, Chávez and Morales, but also with Assad, Peña Nieto, Mugabe, and Putin. Cuba’s spiritual leader was allowing his country’s legacy of radical self-sacrifice and principled international solidarity to be used as a cheap photo op by any passing tyrant. Irrespective of Cuba’s problematic-but-inevitable past dependence on Stalinist regimes, seeing Castro with Putin and Assad is particularly galling in the context of the current worldwide reactionary resurgence. Today I came across a truly bizarre pro-Assad Facebook group called ‘Love for Syria, Iran, Russia and Cuba’. Is support for Cuba now somehow part of the cause of global neofascism? Such geopolitical shifts require acts of mental contortion that it usually takes a lifetime to master. Perhaps, to paraphrase the documentary-maker Adam Curtis, given the current global political context, relations between the rest of the world and Cuba could not and will not be normalised, but rather hypernormalised. Cuba is not going to become ‘just another’ capitalist country – in a post-Trump world, such a thing no longer exists.

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I’m proud to be an immigrant

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As I leave the metro station near my work on Tuesday afternoon I see a sticker from a fascist organisation reading ‘Italy for the Italians’.

At work, while waiting for the students to turn up, I read an article via Facebook that says that Theresa May is going to take away the right of EU nationals to settle in the UK ‘within days’.

I’m an immigrant and I’ve been one for most of my adult life. I’ve lived in six countries other than my own. I chose to move to each of those countries of my own free will and no one attempted to stop me. I’m also a second-generation immigrant, because my father was born in Germany but left in 1950 with his mother, who had met a British soldier and emigrated to Guernsey. My father recalls his journey to the UK as an interminable process, with different visas required for each country he passed through. He later went on to work in countless countries, mostly in Africa and the Caribbean, before eventually settling in Sheffield.

My wife isn’t an immigrant now, but she has been one for a total of 13 years. Our brand-new daughter is in a more ambiguous situation, in that she was born to one Italian parent and one foreign one (me). Actually, thanks to a little bit of foresight, my wife now has British passport by virtue of having lived in London for six years. She had to do an absurd quiz with questions about horseracing, cricket and the Commonwealth, and then she had to swear allegiance to the Queen. I helped her prepare for the test but I didn’t know the answers to most of the questions, and I would have objected to having to paying allegiance to someone just because they occasionally put on a supposedly magic hat.

I’ve always felt welcome in every country I’ve lived in. I’ve never been the object of hostility. On my very first night in Dublin (where I lived for six years) someone in a kebab shop remarked on my foreignness with what sounded at the time like aggression, but on reflection they were almost certainly taking the piss.

In terms of my immigration status I’ve also been extremely lucky. I’ve never had to worry about keeping a low profile or lie awake worrying about possible deportation. I’ve never even had to do a visa run, and my status has never depended on my language skills.

Moving back to the UK in 2006 after thirteen years abroad felt a little like moving to a foreign country. For the first few months in London I kept automatically referring to ‘other foreigners’. It felt natural to spend my time with others who’d lived or came from abroad.

When I went to live in China the paperwork was immense, but it was all available in English. Last year I got annoyed when the Thai embassy insisted on a particular form of bank statement which our narco-sponsoring bank didn’t want to provide. There was a way around it, one which didn’t inconvenience us unduly.

I wanted for a long time to migrate to Brazil, but I basically never had the courage to live and work undercover in a country where foreign teachers are very rarely granted visas. I’d hate to build a life somewhere and see it destroyed overnight. That’s what happened to one of my sisters when she went to work in the USA. She popped over to Mexico for the weekend and wasn’t let back in. Her experience of deportation was extremely distressing.

All the Italian people we’ve spoken to over the last month have been very congratulatory about our daughter. Nobody’s told us the country is ‘full’ or told her to get back where she came from. Nobody would ever tell an actual individual that to their face unless they were actually insane in several important ways; such notions are political abstractions. The fact that our flesh-and-blood child will use up space and resources has never been mentioned.

The stories we’re hearing now from the UK and the US are staggering and heartbreaking. They result from decisions made by people who have no understanding of the risks and sacrifices that human lives entail. Or maybe they do, but they shut their eyes to the implications of what they’re doing. Perhaps I in my examining job have blithely made decisions about people’s language skills which have meant they had to go back to someone else’s idea of where they belong.

I’ve got friends and former students who’ve spent years of their lives dreaming of studying in the UK only to find that large parts of the ‘education’ system are no more than a scam to rip off gullible foreigners. In much the same way, no one travels thousands of miles in the back of a truck to sell selfie sticks outside the Colosseum or roses outside the cinema. Immigrants are useful for other things than political scapegoating.

I’m an immigrant, but an immensely privileged one. In my case, leaving my country was in many ways the obvious and easiest choice. It’s largely by virtue of an accident of birth that I’ve been able to get status and find work. I didn’t get a job in Portugal in 1999 because I was an experienced teacher, but because I have the right accent and passport.  I’ve also benefitted from a favourable historical situation as far as living in Europe is concerned. In most cases, it takes courage and initiative to move to another country.

As it happens, my country’s wealth came in large part from invading other territories and forcing people to migrate. One factor propelling the whole Brexit nonsense is a denial of that history, a resentment at the notion that Britain should and could learn from its past, and a forlorn hope that it can somehow relive the experience. Italy, a country whose cultural richness derives in large part from the ebb and flow of different civilisations, had its own vainglorious attempt at imperial expansion, but fortunately reviving that particular epoch is the dream of a persistent group of loudmouthed oddballs at its political fringes, rather than the historic mission of the most reactionary elements of its political elite.

I’ve tried all my life not to be ashamed I’m where I’m from, to overcome my sense of discomfort at my origins. For me, my unconscious personal project of distancing myself from my roots and trying to be from somewhere else is symptomatic, I now recognise, of a generalised cultural disavowal – there are few things as typically English as pretending not to be. It has also been conditioned by my family background. I have also always enjoyed a certain relief at not possessing any sort of claim to pureblood status or any mooted connection to the ‘soil’. I’m proud to be an immigrant son of an immigrant parent, and it would be absolutely wrong for me for me to do anything other than express my full solidarity with my fellow immigrants all over the world, especially those whose experiences have been less charmed than my own. Of course, that solidarity has to be more than verbal – I need to get involved in specific initiatives to help those less fortunate than myself. Voicing solidarity is easy – it needs to be expressed in actions to have any actual meaning. I believe that in terms of resisting Brexit and Trump, or combatting exclusionary EU policies elsewhere in Europe, helping and supporting (relative) newcomers to our countries is one of the most useful and important things any of us can do.

(This piece was written with suggestions from Andrea, Federica, Federico and Patty.)

If not Tony Blair, then who can lead the movement against Brexit?

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Yesterday I wrote a piece arguing that Tony Blair is not a good figurehead for the movement (if such a thing can be said to exist) to reverse the Brexit decision. My article was very widely read and received a huge amounts of comments on Facebook. Very few of them addressed my central charge: that Blair is, for many in the UK, synonymous with the insult to democracy that was the War in Iraq. Instead I received a certain amount of Ukip-style abuse calling me a ‘troll’ for even mentioning the subject. Inevitably, given that this is, after all, the internet, several such responses were from people who had simply not read my post, in which I said very clearly (twice) that the perspective I was presenting was not entirely my own. I was ventriloquising. We have to be prepared for the arguments that the other side will use to counter our case. That does not mean I am on the other side. The third paragraph even contained the sentence “I think that on this issue Blair is right and that Brexit will be an absolute disaster”. A cursory glance at the rest of this website makes it abundantly clear where my sympathies lie.

If someone is pointing out something  to you and you can’t see it, you need to change your perspective. I wasted years of my life on Twitter arguing against Ukip supporters and other racists, people who systematically deny facts and automatically reject reasoned argument. We have to be better than them.

The War in Iraq is a fact. Our country devastated another because our messianic Prime Minister had promised the US President that his country would get involved in a major war regardless of the consequences. We are responsible for that. We can’t deny that it happened. It has consequences. They may not be consequences for us now. But we are still responsible. It would be the height of British imperial arrogance and racism to pretend that the lives of Iraqi civilians are less important than our own.

It’s essential that we bear in mind two things. We are not the only victims of Brexit. There are people worse off than ourselves who stand to suffer more as a result of this whole farce. We have to make common cause with them.

If you haven’t yet seen this speech by the Guardian journalist John Harris, made in the aftermath of the referendum, please do so. It is a devastatingly cogent and trenchant analysis of the circumstances that produced the vote, one based on his having spent a lot of time talking to people in places which voted Leave. It is the antidote to that sickeningly self-pitying attitude that says that everything in the world would be perfect were it not for Brexit.

Then there’s the effect Brexit will have on immigrants. We need to build solidarity with them. Doing so is a more effective means of combatting our despair than praying for a saviour to make the bad thing go away. Action is transformative. Through helping others we help ourselves. The leaders of this movement will quite possibly not have been born in this country, as it is they who will suffer most from the mistake made by our friends, families and colleagues.

Then there are those who came here or want to come here out of desperation and because they believed in the UK as a place of decency and sanctuary. We warned Blair in 2003 that his war would have wider consequences. One if them is that war creates refugees. We need to speak up for them and persuade those who voted for a cause led by a racist – not all of whom are by any means racist – that we have a moral and legal duty to house our share of refugees. It’s shameful that Corbyn has not linked the two issues.

The other thing to remember is that Brexit is not the only problem in an otherwise perfect world. The greatest ever problem humanity has ever faced is happening in our lifetimes. If you want a reason for the global far-right shift, the climate is a very good place to start. Getting rid of all references to Climate Change on the White House website was the first thing Trump did as President, even before the inauguration ceremony was over. He appointed the boss of the world’s most powerful climate-lying organisation – a man who is also a close business associate of Vladimir Putin – as his Secretary of State. It is no accident whatsoever that all the leading Brexiters are also climate deniers. We are now seeing the function of this very clearly: try to find a tabloid news story about food shortages which does not blame foreigners. The right-wing wants us to scapegoat immigrants for the changing weather patterns. We must do the opposite of that, which is to defend migrants and talk openly and very loudly about the climate. We know – although it’s very, very hard to accept – that many of our children will one day be climate refugees. We have to treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

Green Leader Caroline Lucas says much the same things as I’ve argued here, but what she says often falls on deaf ears because it involves effort and sacrifice on our part. It is much easier to hope for a Messiah, but if we want to make a meaningful change to the world we have to do the more difficult thing of building a movement around these issues. It is of course tragic that we don’t have the support of the most radical ever Labour leader. Corbyn is caught in a bind at present but that doesn’t mean we can’t build bridges in the future. The movement we need to build needs to demonstrate that we have the numbers and the will to turn the tide.

I’ve come across some absurd notions in the last couple of days. One is that the fact that people are talking about Blair means he is having a positive impact. He’s not. The media is talking about him because they know he’s an easy target. Then there’s the idea that he has no self-interest because he’s very rich. Here’s some bad news: they said the same thing about Trump. It’s also been suggested that Alan ‘The Apprentice’ Sugar or Richard ‘Virgin Healthcare’ Branson should play a prominent role. Such suggestions fail to acknowledge that Brexit partly took place because another leading business mogul (Rupert Murdoch, aka the Robert Mugabe of British politics) wanted to promote his business interests. All these men have their own agendas and we cannot allow the progressive forces in this country to be coopted into the megalomaniac projects of any one individual. As it happens, Blair’s motivation is not pecuniary, but ideological. It takes less than a second’s honest reflection to recognise that he wants to regain control of the Labour Party. That is his obsession and everything else is secondary. Other suggestions have included Nick Clegg and John Major. I cannot for the life of me think of any more absurd proposals, even for comic purposes.

Then who is to lead us? The answer is that we need to lead ourselves. The model for this movement – which, if it stays on Facebook, is not a movement – is not New Labour, but Occupy. We can’t go on treating Brexit as an isolated issue, one unconnected to all the other horrible things that are going on in the world. There is a very clear reason that Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and all the other scum of our age support Brexit, scapegoat refugees and furiously deny Climate Change. They have a coherent ideology which links together all those issues and mobilises people’s frustration with their lives. If we want to stop Brexit we have to learn from them. We have to take on other, related, issues. The march on March 25th must make both Climate Change and the defence of migrants central themes. We also have to lead our movement ourselves. No celebrity politician can do that for us. Difficult as it may be, we have to take inspiration in the words of Gramsci: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Or, as a character in Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Bleeding Edge’ puts it:

“Maybe it’s unbeatable, maybe there are ways to fight back. What it may require is a dedicated cadre of warriors willing to sacrifice time, income, personal safety, a brother/sisterhood consecrated to an uncertain struggle that may extend over generations and, despite all, end in total defeat.”

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.

Anti-semitism and the Labour leadership race

It is beyond any doubt that there are people sporting ‘I’ve voted Corbyn’ twibbons on both Twitter and Facebook who have indulged in the most horrendous anti-semitic statements and abuse — awful people who think it’s okay to use language like ‘Jewish scum’ when talking about Israel, or who believe it acceptable to make quasi-racist statements such as ‘not all Jews are bad’.

There are also fanatical Zionists who choose to regard all criticism of the Israel state under any circumstances as anti-semitic. Their campaign to depict the consistently pro-Palestine Corbyn as anti-semitic started some years ago (at least as far back as 2012) but has obviously intensified over the last few months.

There have been some legitimate questions asked of Corbyn in relation to people he has had contact with in the past. He has directly addressed those concerns to the satisfaction of all reasonable parties, explaining that he did not know and could not reasonably have been expected to know that such people held anti-semitic beliefs. Corbyn’s record on anti-racism throughout his political life is absolutely impeccable.

The British media has been playing a very dangerous game in openly suggesting that Corbyn is an anti-semite. It appears that in regularly producing headlines such as ‘Corbyn denies anti-semitic links’ the right-wing media has both achieved its target of associating his name with anti-semitism (possibly as a result attracting anti-semites to his cause), and also evinced and evoked deep-seated anti-semitic impulses in British society. These have found expression among a tiny but vocal minority of his hundreds of thousands of supporters, but are clearly not restricted to them.

As Owen Jones says, we have to be extremely vigilant about each and every instance of anti-semitism wherever we encounter it. We have to publicly and immediately denounce those who express anti-Jewish sentiment. However, the right-wing media and their pro-Israel allies have now developed a new line of attack, saying that anti-semitism is peculiarly common on the British left. This is pernicious. The history of anti-semitism on the right in the UK is very well-known. To pretend that there is a tradition of anti-semitism peculiar to the British left is deeply dishonest and it is designed to destabilise the British left and discredit those who express solidarity with the Palestinian cause. There is a current of anti-semitism in British society. It must be exposed and challenged, but it is deeply wrong and dangerous to summon it up for short-term ideological purposes.

On Framing Austerity

Popular support for austerity as a response to economic crisis remains very high in the UK. Statistics on unemployment, child poverty, homelessness seem to fall on deaf ears. So far none of the campaigns which have been launched to challenge the austerity agenda appear to have had the slightest impact. Why is this?

One very convincing explanation lies in idea of framing. According to the work of George Lakoff and others, people do not simply evaluate the available evidence and form their opinions on this basis. Rather, they tend to accept facts which fit into their picture of the world, and reject those that don’t fit. A great deal of research into the way that people perceive events, think and form opinions supports this.

 

And it is not just a conscious thing – research into the brain shows that we take metaphors much more seriously than was previously assumed. When we hear it repeated endlessly and everywhere that the national credit card has been maxed out and that we urgently need to cut back on spending, we tend to believe it, whether we want to do so or not.

A recent report <http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/framing-the-economy-the-austerity-story>from the New Economic Foundation addresses this problem head on. Over the last few years a very effective story has been told, which barely bears repeating here: The country is broke, austerity is a necessary evil; government spending has grown out of control; many are addicted to welfare and have no incentive to work; many are simply lazy and their outright refusal to work conflicts with the hard-working efforts of the rest of us; the national debt is a ticking time bomb which simply must be addressed.

This story has been effective because it contains key elements: it relates powerfully to people’s own experience of the world; it contains vivid and memorable metaphors; it consists of a simple message repeated endlessly and consistently.

If we want to challenge this agenda, we need to change the terms of the debate. It is clearly not enough to claim, as Labour has done, that austerity is too fast or the cuts too deep. Those of us who oppose austerity have to develop alternative frames which make sense to people and have an emotional appeal.

To this end the NEF report makes a series of suggestions. They suggest the following would be effective messages that the left should try to communicate as much as possible:

*1. **Casino economy – our economy is like a casino, it is in need of reform so that **it can be stable and useful.*

*2. Treading water – we are not making any progress as a nation; we are running **to stand still, struggling but not moving forward.*

*3. Big bad banks – our current problems are the result of a financial crisis that we, **and not the banks that caused it, paid for.*

*4. Big guys and little guys – there are two types of people in Britain, the little guys **who work hard and don’t get a fair deal, and the big guys who have money and **power and play by their own set of rules.*

*5. Jobs Gap – the biggest issue facing our country is the jobs gap: people who **want to work but can’t, people who work hard but don’t take home a decent **wage and young people who cannot be sure of a good job.*

*6. Time for renewal – we need to rebuild and renew what made Britain great– **from the railways to our education system. We need to invest.*

*7. Austerity is a smokescreen – The Coalition uses the deficit as an excuse to do **what they have always wanted to do like shrink the state and privatise the NHS. **We cannot trust them; they aren’t out to help ordinary people.*

We can, indeed should, debate which of these messages may resonate more powerfully with the public. Some would clearly be much more effective than others. We also need to use whatever resources we can to find out which ones work best. They all potentially present alternatives messages which exploit certain sentiments which are widely held and deeply felt. Whichever messages we choose will need to be repeated as consistently, as clearly and as widely as possible.

One hopeful sign that Miliband and co may be aware of the potential of such an approach was his recent instruction to MPs and ministers to refer to ‘social security’ rather than ‘welfare’. But if Left Unity is serious about having any sort of impact on public debate in this country it will have to take up this challenge and go much further.

I’m sure that these ideas will provoke a furious reaction from some on the left who are allergic to any attempt to rethink the way we use language to formulate and communicate our ideas. For me such a debate will be very welcome. We cannot just keep trying, and failing, to appeal to people’s rationality.

The same goes for climate change. No amount of appeals to people’s rational sense of self-interest has worked in trying to raise awareness of the coming catastrophe. The need to behave sustainably does not fit into people’s framework for understanding reality, which is based on infinite economic expansion and ever-increasing consumption. We have to develop frames which are based clearly on the notion that we cannot separate economic and social development and environmental impact, that the economy and the environment are not two separate entities but one. Thinking in new ways, seeking to reframe debates about all aspects of how we perceive and organise our social reality has to be an integral part of the project to build an effective left movement in this country and elsewhere.

The tyranny of structurelessness

‘The idea of ‘structurelessness’, however, has moved from a healthy counter to these tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right…If the movement is to move beyond these elementary stages of development, it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organisation and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about either of these. They can be and often are misused, but to reject them out of hand because they are misused is to deny ourselves the necessary tools to further development. We need to understand why ‘structurelessness’ does not work.’

As Jo Freeman detailed in the classic essay from which the above quote is taken, in social networks which are initally informal and horizontal hierarchies tend to emerge. If this is not acknowleged and its implications considered in all their seriousness, the current trend for decentred models of political organisation will lead up a series of blind alleys, and two excellent articles from the last few days make this clear beautifully.

In the midst of the swarm of networked intelligence, centres tend to form, which connect to other centres. For example, to know in advance about the Netroots event yesterday, you had to be connected to the right people on twitter and facebook. All nodes are equal, but some nodes are more equal than others.

Organisations develop their own interests, and the initial objective tends to be principally obfuscated by the need to survive. Bureaucracies and hierarchies inevitably emerge. Most social movement organisations go from informal non-hierarchical organisations towards becoming institutionalised and formalised as advocacy groups and mass membership organisations. As they do so, they inevitably slow down and become less reactive, putting more emphasis on their long-term survival and effectiveness, partly because ‘Bureaucratic organizations often are more successful at gaining access to established political channels, being recognized as legitimate movement representatives and at sustaining ongoing interactions with diverse constituencies including “allies, authorities, and supporters”’.

This represents a constant problem for the fashionable model of informal, hyperreactive, mobile, non-hierarchical organisations. New, informal movements will spring up more or less on a whim to replace those that become formalised and hierarchical, but for example in this country no sustainable or effective anti-cuts movement can be built on the basis of a new UK Uncut-style group suddenly springing up every two weeks, while preceding mini-generations of previously non-hierarchical groups turn to the slow and morbid business of lobbying and advocacy work.

As Richard Seymour also points out, the fetishisation of the power of headless decentred networked movements to overcome the ‘old centralised, top-down, upright, phallic feudal army without contradiction’ ignores the fact that power itself is diffuse, distributed, with a multiplicity of centres. The future of the struggle against power cannot be left to the whims of those who are better connected. There is a need for explicit political leadership.

The best thing is for that leadership to be open, elected and accountable, rather than pretending it does not exist. Hence the need for consistent political organisation around a democratically agreed shared programme, on a regional, national and international scale.

Me and Billy Bragg, Billy Bragg and me

billy-bragg-p0x2_o_tnOn my bedroom wall I have a signed poster of Billy Bragg. This suggests that I am a Billy Bragg fan, which is something about which I feel a certain awkwardness. To be a Billy Bragg fan is to associate oneself with someone always seen by many as gruff, proletarian, sexless, musically staid, and chippy. But nevertheless it remains a fact that the first single and album I bought were both his, his play ‘Pressure Drop’ was one of my highlights of last year, and I kicked myself recently on learning I’d missed his national tour, which ended last week. I’ve always felt an admiration with his seemingly boundless wit and warmth, and partly thanks to these qualities, and partly due to having, like that other group my fanship of whom has always occasioned a certain embarrassment, the Pet Shop Boys, he has managed to hang around just within public sight for over twenty five years without pissing off everyone too much and has in middle age been achieved the status of avuncular national treasure. Nevertheless like any uncle some of his pronouncements over the last few years have been somewhat dubious and increasingly conservative, especially around the questions of English national identity and tactical voting. There is an unpleasant element of both left-baiting in his relentless scorn for the far-left, and a not unrelated level of anti-intellectualism, both of which were evident in a Guardian interview published yesterday.

It is touching to read about his enthusiasm for the student protests, although predictably he also uses it as an excuse to indulge in some cheap digs at the far-left and anyone who tries to apply the lessons of the past to the present situation. There are signs that Bragg’s long-standing embarrassment with the legacy of socialism and communism colours his view of how things should develop, an awkwardness has always led him to temper his radicalism and try to sell it as instinctive, and organic, rather than intellectual. It seems churlish to point out that Bragg did not go to university and seems to harbour a certain resentment against those whose ideas for changing the world derive from detailed and patient analysis of complex ideas about society and how to change it. He is a proselytiser of what José Saramago used to call ‘hormonal’ socialism, although he now prefers to avoid the word itself if at all possible:

‘The people out protesting now, Bragg says, are the first generation ever to be able to talk about socialism without having the long shadow of Karl Marx hanging over them. If, indeed, they even describe it as such. “To be honest, I don’t care if it’s called socialism,” he says. “Anyway, what is socialism but organised compassion…They (the students) are making their own connections, and at the bottom of them all is an absolute sense of unfairness. That’s what’s politicised them. Not some abstract interest in dialectical materialism…We’ve got a lot to learn from them – their ability to join things up, take the initiative, not hang around and see what Marx would have said.”

He has also engaged in these debates in the last week or so, making very similar points on the already seminal Comment is Free piece by Laurie Penny:

“I now understand that what annoys you about Laurie and her generation is their refusal to be kettled in by either the Metropolitan Police or by the SWP and their ideological bedfellows.

Whether we like it or not, we are currently living in a post-ideological era. The language of Marxism is dead. Don’t mourn, organise! That’s what the students are doing – in a manner that is both different and challenging to those of us whose politics were forged in the 20th century.

We can either carp from the sidelines or join them as they take action.”

And is righteously smacked down:

“Laurie Penny, and in fact everyone ‘resisting’ the coalition’s education reform agenda, frequently draws on Marxism, even if she/they don’t know that that is what they are doing. And I don’t blame them, because if they want to talk about the ‘marketisation’ (i.e. commodification) of higher education, then they are de facto drawing on Marx! So to argue that the langauge of Marxism is dead is just a laughably ill-informed comment to make. It beggars belief.” (oxymoronic)

One wonders if Bragg has also been following that other debate about the meaning of communism and the role of Communist ideas in the struggle for a different world sparked off by Alain Badiou’s article in the New Left Review two years ago. The conference which that article inspired took place in the Logan Hall of the Institute of Education, the same venue as last year’s Compass conference, which Billy was at; but I suspect that the On the Idea of Communism event may have been anathema to him, given that it featured a series of Marxist intellectuals, two words guaranteed to provoke a spluttering splenetic reaction. It would be a shame if he hadn’t at least read Badiou’s article, because his aversion to the very names of Communism and Socialism is not uncommon, but to really think about what we do need to retain from the past, indeed to insist upon, and what we need to jettison, and who is this ‘we’ that needs to find answers to these questions, is an intellectual process, which demands that we analyse in depth revolutionary ideas and practices from the past. It is perhaps too easy to see Bragg’s dismissal of such debates of symptomatic of a British culture of anti-intellectualism, but it is highly likely that the experience of ferocious debates with SWP student firebrands on the Red Wedge tour in the 1980s traumatised the man and provoked this very evident revulsion at the very mention of revolutionary politics.

As I mentioned at the start, I love the wit and warmth at the heart of the best of Bragg’s music. Growing up I even preferred his poetry to that of Morrissey, someone who had a more grandiose emotional range which I as a teenager couldn’t yet aspire to. There was something in the combination of plaintiveness and gruffness in songs like ‘St. Swithin’s Day’ and ‘A Lover Sings’ which echoed my more stoical sense of myself. Morrissey seemed too much at home in his outsiderness, seemed to enjoy his symptoms too much, while Bragg was (for me) comfortingly gauche in his sense of romance and bitter at the world. I recognised myself in his songs, and admired his sense of engagement.

This heightened poetic sense can lead to political confusion, however. In yesterday’s interview he draws an analogy which seems to work beautifully at first, but quickly collapses when subject to further reflection. He rightly condemns the slavish devotion to market ‘dogma’ of all three parties over the last number of years (he clearly prefers this word to its near cousin ‘ideology’, which, given that he insists we live in a ‘post-ideological age’, would complicate things somewaht, but what the hey). But then he produces a metaphor which sounds apt, but isn’t:

“‘The market’s like fire, you know? Constrain it, harness it, and it’ll provide you with warmth and light and heat for your cooking … Let it rip, and it’ll destroy everything you hold dear.”

Now that is a fabulous image, but as I say it doesn’t work. Why not? Well, in a world increasingly subject to the iniquitous dictates of the so-called free market, billions around the world lack precisely that warmth, light and heat for their cooking. And this is not because the market is improperly regulated and managed, but because as reality shows quite clearly it is not an appropriate mechanism for providing the essentials of life. Warmth and heat and fuel for cooking are commodities exchanged for profit, but they are not, as Bill Clinton remarked of food, commodities like any other, or at least, they shouldn’t be. The market may one day have a role of some kind in a world ordered justly and democratically, but the essentials of life – housing, food, energy, transport, health, education – cannot be left to be distributed according to a system in which the winner takes all and the loser freezes or starves.

I very much hope that Billy Bragg continues to play a part in what appears to be a growing movement for radical change. But his aversion to intellectual and ideological debate may be an obstacle to his making a full contribution. The debates of the last week over the role of revolutionary organisations, and what new forms of media imply for how radical activists should and can organise have been very important and useful. The legacy of the reluctance of certain far-left groups to engage in honest and open debate in the past may be something that can be overcome, or it may be something that serves as an obstacle to greater unity, but at the very least people are now trying to have that debate rather than cynically bitching about the irrelevance and inadequacies of the far left, as Bragg has long been prone to do.