The Echo of The Voiceless Pt 3: The Song of The Voiceless

song of the voiceless

故曰:知彼知己,百戰不殆;不知彼而知己,一勝一負;不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆。

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even if you have a hundred battles.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

These are the wise words of military strategist Sun Tzu, taken from his classic work, The Art of War. It is, of course, the quote from which we get the saying: “Know your enemy.”

As well as knowing our enemy, Sun Tzu’s advice suggests that we have a distinct strategic advantage if our own true nature remains unknown by that enemy. Stealth. Duplicity. Secrecy. These are powerful tools. Which is why bureaucracies of any political flavour are so afraid of privacy. It is also why neoliberalism is so powerful. As George Monbiot put it in an essay for the Guardian earlier this year:

[Neoliberalism’s] anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

Neoliberalism has successfully subverted our economic, democratic and cultural mechanisms of power (and even, with increasingly normalised neoliberal attitudes in many supposed alternative political movements, the traditional mechanisms used in the fight against such power). This has allowed the neoliberals to become a virtually unquestioned political force. It didn’t take tanks in the street. It didn’t take an armed coup. It didn’t take a mass movement. It didn’t even take votes from a majority of the people (although ‘democracy’ is regularly used to justify the actions of neoliberals). As world-shattering (quite literally) as it has become, neoliberalism was not so much an act of revolution as an act of subversion. It could be argued that neoliberalism was the world’s first dominant polity hack.

I described the economic and political dis-empowerment of the working class in part one and part two of this series. For a more in-depth understanding of the global rise of neoliberalsim – and subsequent dismantling of democratic processes – I would recommend viewing Noam Chomsky’s “Requiem for the American Dream(if you have a Netflix account, it is currently available to download in the documentary section). Don’t worry about your personal political persuasion (unless, of course, you’re avowed neoliberal), this film highlights the key roles political institutions on both the right and the left  played in the rise of inequity and the demise of democracy.

As I mentioned in the last post in this series, I believe that cultural dis-empowerment is the most important aspect of the rise of neoliberalism. Not just because it proved instrumental in the political abandonment of the former Labour heartlands, but because it points to a form of power which holds the key to weakening, and perhaps even reversing, neoliberalism’s grip.

If neoliberalism was the world’s first polity hack, then the cultural dis-empowerment of working class communities can perhaps be seen as the world’s first Democratic Denial Of Society (DDoS) attack. Since the seventies we have seen a sustained and growing form of political exclusion which targets those whose lives lie furthest from the neoliberal ideal. Whereas the judicial system was used to discourage (and, in some cases, even outlaw) outsider and/or alternative lifestyles, much more subtle forms of subjugation were used against those communities which were part of the ‘normal’ world, but which had been deemed economically undesirable by the architects of neoliberalism.

Anti-union legislation was, of course, used to dis-arm and discourage dissent in the former industrial heartlands (along with New Labour’s effective criminalising of childhood through the introduction of ASBOs and other ‘anti-social behaviour laws’), but it was what we might call ‘counter-narrative strategies’ which ultimately proved to be the most effective form of control.

Humans are story-dwellers. Like it or not our lives are shaped, organised, driven and controlled by human-created narratives. Some people are offended when their worldview is described as a ‘story’, but that is only because we are prone to undervaluing the power and importance of the narrative as the central organising principle of the human mind.

Everything we do is guided by linguistic maps which are either a product of our own internal monologue (immediate experience) or shared cultural dialogue (socialised norms and values) – or a combination thereof. The problems arise, much to the annoyance of Alfred Korzybski, when we mistake the map for the territory.

Although I would like to believe that I personally favour stories which are testable, and therefore fluid in nature, I am painfully aware that life is too short and too complex to ever fully escape the influence of the dominant (…and ghosts of the previously dominant…) metanarratives. It is a dangerous vanity to think ourselves free of narratives, meta or otherwise, the best we can hope to do is not take our own stories too seriously and never, ever try to inflict them upon one another. Or, as we are currently  doing when it comes to the planet’s climate, inflict our maps upon the actual territory.

Neoliberalism, of course, claims to have transcended the metanerrative. Post-modernism, we are told, is the pinnacle of human existence where we no longer needs stories (dreams) of a better world. But anyone who has seen The Usual Suspects knows full well the trick that neoliberalism has been pulling for decades…

Rather than market itself as yet another ideology in an already crowded sea of isms, neoliberalism sought instead to strengthen its hand by undermining those values which run contrary to its own narrative. Things like solidarity, compassion, justice, autonomy or mutual aid are an anathema to the Gordon Gekko-esque gods of neoliberalism. Small wonder then that the working class and their backward notion of ‘community’ were a prime target.

Never mind the obviously dangerous metanarratives like communism or Marxism, Thatcher told us point blank that “there is no such thing as society.” Society FFS! As if the fact that we’re genetically pre-determined highly social primate can be wished away just because it is inconvenient to some anally retentive ideologues. No more metanarratives my arse!

As the narrative – and accompanying norms – of neoliberalism took a hold in the minds of those who help spread the narrative (to understand how dominant ideologies are unconsciously reinforced by people whose careers rely on being able to not to ask the right questions I would recommend reading David Edwards‘ 2000 book, Free to be Human) the mainstream media became ever more critical of traditionally working class communities and their cultural narratives.

This attack on working class culture was at its height during the noughties. This was a time we might call the ‘Little Britain’ era, due to the fact that ‘comedies’ such as these were instrumental in shaking off the last vestiges of the salt-of-the earth narrative which had come to prominence through the industrial era. The following semi-literate tirade aimed at my hometown of Bentley, Doncaster is not untypical of the kind of classism which was everywhere at the time:

Driving around Bentley is like a safari because everywhere you go chavs and chavettes are all over the place getting upto allsorts. Even on the shockingly disgusting buses (63) that are provided there are chavs, gypos, etc everywhere. Because of large chav and teenage pregnancy numbers the buses run every 5 mins.

This kind of abuse was at the more extreme (and extremely stupid…) end of the spectrum, but it is representative of a mainstream shift towards ever growing degrees of classim, poor-blaming and economic bigotry. Owen Jones‘ 2011 book, Chavs, looks at this process in greater detail than I can describe here.

Poorer working class communities are far from perfect (show me a community which is), but they are not the vile, racist, ignorant, benefit-scrounging cesspools which the media would have you believe (a media which was itself sickeningly racist not so very long ago).

Classism and the misrepresentation of working class communities are important factors that must be addressed, but the destruction of once dearly held narratives is also damaging in other, often more immediate, ways. The collapse of a central worldview or narrative can lead to actual mental and physical trauma. When this happens on a national scale then it is the people most invested in the dominant narrative, rather than the weak, the old or the young (who are already removed by some degree from the dominant story), who suffer the most. As Dougald Hine puts it:

In one of his darkly observant essays on the fall of the Soviet Union and its lessons for present-day America, Dmitri Orlov advises against being a successful middle-aged man :

When their career is suddenly over, their savings gone and their property worthless, much of their sense of self-worth goes as well. They tend to drink themselves to death and commit suicide in disproportionate numbers. Since they tend to be the most experienced and capable people, this is a staggering loss to society. (Reinventing Collapse, p.122-3)

The spike in mortality that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union has few parallels in history. Between 1987 and 1994, life expectancy dropped from 70 to 64, and the group whose likelihood of dying increased most sharply was, indeed, working age men. In other words, despite the material hardships of the period, it was not the weakest and most vulnerable who died in greater numbers, but the physically strong: what was most deadly about the collapse was not the disappearance of the means of staying alive, but the lack of ends for which to stay alive.

This passage was taken from a piece Dougald posted on Edgeryder‘s which is entitled The Regeneration of Meaning. The title itself hints at the work which needs to be done if we are to reverse the damage done by neoliberalism.

Despite the overarching and domineering reach of the neoliberal narrative the situation we currently find ourselves in is not inevitable. It is not a product of ‘human nature’ or ‘natural law’. It is as much a human construct as the former Soviet Union, Kim Jong-un’s North Korea or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Why do we always find it so easy to see the fiction of other people’s stories whilst we treat our own with such unquestioning and undeserved reverence?

Neoliberalism has become the most widespread and domineering metanarrative of them all. Because the technological, scientific and social advances made during it’s reign have been so beneficial to so many people we have mistakenly seen this as a construct of a benign system. But such advances are not a product of the dominant narrative. Indeed the dominant narrative now sits as the greatest obstacle to humans fully enjoying the fruits of their own labour.

The majority of people now live healthier, wealthier and safer lives than at any previous point in human history. But a general rise in the standard of living conditions has also conversely seen a meteoric rise in levels of anxiety, depression, suicide and boredom. What we’re seeing is people who have conquered material needs now succumbing to a lack of meaning in their lives.

Much of this has to do with the unprecedented levels of economic inequality that neoliberalism has produced. Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level provides all the scientific data we need to help us understand how dangerous socioeconomic inequity truly is – and how beneficial equity is to society as a whole. But there is also a crisis of meaning created by the lack of humanity, creativity, compassion and cooperation which neoliberalism has left in its wake.

Neoliberalism cannot provide the answers we need. It’s faux-caring ‘sharing economy’ has so far proved itself to be more of the same; as the recent Deliveroo protests and the Uber-driven crisis of affordable homes in Vancouver testify. The dominant metanarrative cannot be reformed, it must be transcended.

But in order to do this we must find new narratives of our own. Robbed of their original meaning the old metanarratives are useless to us. Crumbling before our eyes the neoliberal fairy tale is also on its last legs, but it is capable of inflicting a lot of pain and suffering as it falls. If we are to build anew we must first dream anew. And those dreams must be multiple, diverse, fair, loving and human-scaled – everything neoliberalsim is not. It is high time we created our own ‘counter-narrative strategy’ to counter the lie we have been force-fed for far too long.

A Sense Of Place: #DoncasterIsGreat, but our current aesthetic is sadly lacking.

bentley community woodland 2
Recently Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council (DMBC) conducted a much needed place marketing strategy to try and improve the public perception of Doncaster (yes, I know, the Doncopolitan has being doing this for years, but that’s another story). I was very much looking forward to the re-branding of our wonderful town, but then I saw the following post on the Visit Doncaster website…

What disappointed, saddened and shocked me about the post was the following sentence…

“The town also benefits from being closely located to beautiful countryside, with the Peak District National park nearby”
WTF! The boundary of the Peak District National Park is a full 20 miles from Doncaster town and almost 15 miles from the borough border at Mexborough.

Before anyone thinks I’m being petty here I’d like to point out that the photos which accompany my own blog post were taken in Bentley (Bentley Community Woodland to be precise). I was there for a meeting with the Forestry Commission, so photography wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. But I managed to get these shots of ‘beautiful countryside’ well within the actual boundaries of the DMBC without really trying (hopefully I’ll be returning soon to do the job properly in the near future).

Other reclaimed mining sites throughout the borough offer equally as ‘beautiful countryside’ (to me these sites are perhaps more beautiful than our supposedly ‘natural’ National Parks – as vitally important as these parks are – because they provide a glimpse of how wonderful our post-industrial future could truly be). And this is before we even consider the stunning Dearne Valley (inspiration for Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe), the rare and mysterious Thorne & Hatfield Moors, the wider Humberhead Levels, Potteric Carr and the last remnants of the once great Barnsdale Forest; itself a remnant of the Wildwood and, according to  the oldest known ballads, the true home of Robin Hood.

I have travelled much of Doncaster on foot (it is rare to find a place in the UK where you can walk so far, through such diverse ecology and geography, and still easily avoid any major roads) and these are just few of the amazing sites which came to mind while writing this post. There are many, many more. If we were to include sites of historical interest as well as natural beauty then I would need a book, rather than just a blog, just to list them.

I make no secret of my love for this area, and I know I am not alone. I started the Doncopolitan with my good friend and collaborator, Rachel Horne, to prove that Doncaster was no ‘cultural desert’. I humbly believe that we have succeeded in that mission. We also have an idea in the pipeline which will showcase Doncaster’s unique heritage and history. And now I would very much like to create a platform for Doncaster’s natural history and visitor attractions too.

I want to create an online (and, if we can find the funding, print…) guide to Doncaster which encourages exploration and paints our region in a new light. This will be a multi-media journey through all the marvels and mysteries Doncaster has to offer. An ever-evolving map of one of England’s greatest hidden treasures. My working motto is:

If it can be made, it can be made beautiful.
 I want this new project to reflect that belief. So if you are a writer, photographer, videographer, walker, rambler, naturalist, geologist, historian or, like me, a plain old Donny lover and you’re interested in (quite literally…) putting Doncaster on the map, then please get in touch.

Most importantly if you are able to help sponsor the project, or you know of an individual or business who can, then please get in touch. Let’s work together to showcase Doncaster in all its beauty.

bentley community woodland

The Echo of The Voiceless Pt 2: The Echoes of Power

Bentley Former Council Offices

I often walk past the building in the this photograph on my way to one of the two jobs I work. Although it has long since been hacked away, the writing above the main entrance is still perfectly legible. It reads:

BENTLEY WITH ARKSEY COUNCIL OFFICES AD 1913

As you can see the building is in a state of disrepair and is currently up for sale. Existing long past its intended use as a hub for local authority, its days are now sadly numbered.  Most likely it will end its one hundred year life as residential flats – either through conversion or through demolition – and another little piece of local history will be confined to the mists of forgetting.

Times change. Places change. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse. More often than not change brings a mixture of both good and bad where the proverbial baby spirals down the plughole along with the proverbial bathwater. Doncaster’s own bathwater was coal-black, death-cold and gritty as a slag-heap, but the baby was strong, defiant and just; even if it wasn’t the cutest kid on the block.

The areas where the Brexit vote was strongest were those areas where local industry has long been decimated. These are the former Labour heartlands where, once upon a time, a single industry could keep a whole community alive.

In Doncaster the core industry was, of course, coal mining. Industry brings its own problems (as a child I used to wake up to the sound of my next door neighbour coughing what remained of his lungs onto the street outside my house) and there are few miners who lament the job itself. What they do miss, however, is the comradery, the economic security and the collective power they once enjoyed with regard to so many aspects of their lives.

I touched on economic security in part one of this post when I said:

Every basic security has been swept away … One of the most basic of human needs, shelter, has become a pension scheme for the affluent, causing the widespread return of absentee landlords and a rise in sub-standard living conditions. This has [made] house ownership all but an impossible dream for the vast majority of people living in impoverished towns. Without the dream of a better life who can really be enthused by the prospect of low-paid, zero-hour, menial work which will do little more than pay the bills and put food on the table until you die (usually prematurely of a poverty related disease) … Can anyone really fail to understand the bitterness, cynicism and anxiety which runs through these communities.

Contrast this to the relative autonomy of mining communities. Housing was closely tied to the dominant industry (the housing estate where I live was even designed with the job-roles of  men who worked the mine in mind) and the collective power the miners which was used to ensure safety and fairness at work (there are still some old guys in Doncaster who can recite vast tracts of work-related law from memory like some Ragged Trousered Perry Mason) was also used to ensure that the town as a whole had enough political leverage to guarantee that each of the town’s residents needs were met, regardless of whether they were miners or not.

It wasn’t a perfect system by any means. Each town was, quite understandably, fighting for their own interests against those of the many other towns which make up the borough of Doncaster. Machismo, ego and posturing meant that Doncaster was run more like a group of independent Mafia families than a collective whole; a situation which was instrumental in the development of the Donnygate scandal.

The old structures of power in Doncaster may have been prone to corruption, but this is far from unique in any bureaucratic institution. Indeed the dominant neoliberal system (a system so cruel and pernicious that it has elements of both the ‘fair’ right and the ‘caring’ left attacking poor communities for their poverty) has made an art form (and an economy…) out of Machiavellian manoeuvrings.

If neoliberalism can be defined by any single trend it is the global rise of a dominant apparatchik class; the dangers of which are brilliantly observed in Bob Shea’s The Empire of the Rising Scum.

Both the apparatchik and the state of modern democracy can be summarised using the following lines from Shea’s essay:

The ability to get ahead in an organization is simply another talent, like the ability to play chess, paint pictures, do coronary bypass operations or pick pockets. There are some people who are extraordinarily good at manipulating organizations to serve their own ends. The Russians, who have suffered under such people for centuries, have a name for them– apparatchiks. It was an observer of apparatchiks who coined the maxim, “The scum rises to the top.”

Unfortunately, the existence of this talent means that every successful organization will sooner or later be taken over by apparatchiks. As such people achieve influence within the organization, whenever there is a conflict between their own interest and the interest of the organization, their interests will win out. Thus, over time, the influence of apparatchiks will deflect the organization further and further from its original intent.

It often happens that when a person possesses a particular ability to an extraordinary degree, nature makes up for it by leaving him or her incompetent in every other department.

Even the nature of the neoliberal economy – focusing mainly on generating wealth from debt (money for nothing) – reflects how unproductive (in both social and economic terms) your average apparatchik really is. But at the local level it was impossible for the apparatchik to wreak real havoc. Yes, they could be dangerous, self-serving and greedy, but, while they were still directly tied to the wider community, that community’s social norms and values (and hard-line community activists) would keep them in check. This meant they were accountable, and that accountability meant that their unique talents could still be used for the benefit of the local community as a whole.

Unfortunately the kind of human-scale power structures which once allowed at least some form of local autonomy (no matter how faltering) have long-since been replaced with centralised bureaucratic, technocratic and corporate power which is perfectly structured to protect those who are, quite blatantly, stealing from the poorest and most vulnerable.

The neoliberal economy’s ability to steer the flow of wealth and to capitalise on every aspect of human life could not have come into existence without the radical restructuring of socioeconomic (and, as we shall see in the next part of this post, cultural…) power.

However crass, greedy, anti-social and ecologically suicidal the neoliberals might be, they are far from stupid (although their arrogance – and/or perhaps their psychopathy – does tend to make them blind). This is an ideology which believes in the long-game while happily raking in short-term gains. Over the course of decades neoliberalism has whittled away the political, economic and cultural power of the working class.

The first and most obvious attack on working class power for many people was the highly visible (and, in the case of the miners, highly physical…) attack on workplace power. The Anti-Union Legislation measures introduced between 1980 and 2000 do not only dis-empower workers, they have also been used to counter other forms of popular dissent.

As a long-term ecological activist I saw first hand how, in the 90s, Anti-Union laws were routinely used against road protesters and since that time additional, non union related, laws have been introduced make many forms of legitimate protest much harder, if not impossible.

Judicial subjugation reached its peak in the New Labour era (New as in ‘Neo’ and Labour as in ‘Liberal’) when 3000+ new ‘anti-social’ laws effectively illegalised childhood in the UK. But the supposed Tory opposition, despite its anti-Nanny State rhetoric, continues to swell the law books in favour of the dominant neoliberal class.

Such abuses of political power could only come into force once the structure of political power itself had been altered. First to come under attack were the local authorities who have lost ever greater powers to Westminster over the course of decades. What should be the front-line of democracy in Britain, delivering the will of the immediate population at a local level, has become little more than an administrative service for central (and ever more heavily centralised…) government. What is more, as the Joseph Rowntree independent inquiry into the nature of democracy in Britain, Power to the Peoplefound back in 2006, the balance of power in parliament has shifted to the executive so that even those who are elected to represent the interests of a given community/region are not in a favourable position to guarantee any real help for their electorate.

Power to the People is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how we got to this place and what can be done, with regard to representative parliamentary democracy at least, to counter the collapse of democracy in the UK. A collapse which, I believe, ultimately led to a widespread and decisive vote for Brexit in the former Labour heartlands.

While political power is the most heavily observed (and critiqued) aspect of power, economic power has as much, if not greater, influence on the socioeconomic prospects of a given region. As well as having a higher percentage of Leave voters, the industrial and formerly industrial Labour heartlands also have the highest percentage of relative poverty in the UK.

This is not a problem specific to Britain (neoliberalism is a global system after all). Magnum photographer, Matt Black‘s groundbreaking project, The Geography of Poverty combines geotagged photographs with census data to map and document America’s poorest places.

Black’s criteria was to document places with poverty rates above 20%; a poverty rate all too common in the former Labour heartlands (Yorkshire & Humber consistently average around 22%). The 20% threshold is something of a tipping point in terms of socioeconomic divisions and prospects. As Black says in an interview with Daisy McCorgray for Professional Photography magazine:

“Once you pass that threshold, poverty doesn’t affect just the ‘poor’: it affects the entire community … Things like schools, roads, healthcare. All areas of life begin to be impacted.”

Black knew that he wanted to look at the bigger picture regarding poverty:

“Journalism and photography deal with poverty as an isolated event, or single out one place. With that, what you’re doing is heightening the differences between these places. What I’m trying to do, instead, is to find the commonality.”

Interestingly the commonality he found was that:

“Mainly, they are places that produce something: in the Central Valley of California they produce food, in Appalachia they produce coal, in Detroit and Michigan they produce automobiles.”

This is, of course, an observation which is also true of the impoverished former Labour heartlands. Doncaster, as I already mentioned, used to produce coal and Lincolnshire, which recorded the highest Leave vote percentage in the county at 75%, produces food. Interestingly, since the loss of coal mining as its core industry, the food industry has become the major employer in Doncaster too. If productivity really did equate to wealth then these areas should be prosperous, but as Black also found, this is not the case:

“These communities are excluded and the big decisions and choices that impact lives in these places are often made elsewhere … Finding commonalities and building connections between these places, it made me think of poverty as something much more than economics. It’s not just dollars, it’s a symbol of social power. Who gets what, and why. Whose work is valued, whose products are valued and whose aren’t … the power and the psychology behind it.”

Black’s project shows that if a community works hard to produce tangible and necessary goods – the essentials of daily life – then it much more likely to find itself economically and politically excluded.

If you live in an impoverished area then this really isn’t news. But if you’re following the mainstream media then this really, literally, absolutely isn’t news. In fact the news will tell you pretty much anything but this simple economic fact. The mainstream media in the UK is awash with blatant classism and poor-blaming and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find voices of dissent anywhere in the media.

This is because the third, and in my humble opinion most important, loss of power which the former Labour heartlands (and the working class in general) has faced is the loss of cultural power. Why do I feel cultural dis-empowerment is the most important factor of them all? Partly because I am a working class artist frustrated by the scarcity of projects in the vein of Matt Black’s and the lack of genuine working class representation, but mostly because, as I hope to argue in the next part of this blog post, only a newfound cultural empowerment can hope to reverse the trend towards sociopolitical exclusion in the former Labour strongholds.

When Black says ‘Whose work is valued, whose products are valued and whose aren’t’, he points to one of the most destructive elements of the neoliberal machine; its ability to shape – through its media and its control of modern communication technologies – the underlying narratives by which we live our lives. Isn’t it time we told a new story?..

(rant not quite over)

Donny United: Chin Wags & Get Togethers

dug

If you listen to the Londoncentric media you would think that this is a nation totally divided and on the brink of collapse. But if you talk to the people of Doncaster you will find that we’re made of stronger, better, warmer stuff than that.

There have been a few ugly scenes locally, and anyone who attacks a person based on prejudice of any kind is absolute scum in my book, but Doncaster has seen nowhere near the rise in hate crimes which have been reported nationally.

As I’ve posted elsewhere the people I personally have spoken to about their leave vote have had very diverse reasons for making their choice. Mostly they seem to reflect feelings of dis-empowerment, distrust (in politics) and genuine concern for future of their children regarding an already strained local infrastructure. I was not a Leaver, but I do not believe for a second that the 104,260

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An Uncertain Future… is exactly what we need… maybe?

einstein-1
Image & quote found at https://joannahubbard.wordpress.com

There hasn’t been time for people to properly digest the full meaning of Brexit, but ever since last week’s referendum decision to leave the EU there has been a palpable air of fear and anxiety in Britain. Many of the people I have spoken to who voted Leave have expressed some concerns about where we go from here. The “I voted for it, but I really didn’t think we’d win” confession is not an uncommon statement. Some Remainers have poured scorn on this, branding them as ‘ignorant’ or ‘stupid’, but with the UK’s preferred and usual First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system the protest vote has long been the norm for British voters.

Some are decrying the democratic processes of the referendum, and perhaps it was too close a decision decided by too few people, but in many ways it was the democratic failures of the FPTP system in our general elections which guaranteed the widespread, and ultimately deciding, outpouring of dissatisfaction in British society delivered by the much more democratic referendum system.

I am not a Leaver (although I am certainly not a supporter of the EU trading bloc) and I find UKIP rather disturbing to say the least, but the FPTP system used in the last general election saw the votes of 4 million people who did vote UKIP almost completely ignored. As my own party’s sole MP, Caroline Lucas, put it in the Guardian recently:

Perhaps it’s no wonder that leave’s message to “take back control” stuck. People do feel powerless. Not least the almost 4 million people who voted for Ukip at the last general election who have just one MP representing them. As the one MP for more than a million voters I know all too well how our electoral system isn’t up to the task of representing genuine political differences that exist in Britain.

If the UK’s representative democracy had ever truly represented the opinions of the people whom it claims to represent (glad I’m writing that and not saying it) then we would have a vastly different political landscape today.

Yes, we would have to stomach the opposing, sometimes even unpalatable, ideas of those we disagree with, but at least we would be actively encouraging the kind of visible and relevant political debate and activity which leads to a much deeper and more responsive democracy.

Of course it is worrying that millions of people might fall for the BS of a charismatic charlatan, but I am of the opinion that bad ideas create bad results. We have only to look at the incredibly pathetic results of the BNP trying to work at local council level to see how those who value rhetoric over reality fair in the political climate of the everyday world.

There would have to be genuine accountability and the ability for regions to recall their MP in the face of inactivity or poor performance (poor performance being a failure of duty to their geographic region rather than a failure to tow a party – or ideological – line). There would have to be a written constitution; drafted and implemented to protect the rights of all people to live unmolested by others and which guarantees liberties and freedoms for all. There would have to be the reintroduction of real political power at local levels. And there would also have to be an open and accountable system of public spending, allowing everyone to see (and ultimately decide upon) where monies derived from taxation and other state dealings was being spent; currently just 5% of all public spending is allocated by people or bodies which are publicly accountable for their actions.

All of these will be necessary moves if we are ever to wrestle democracy back from the hands of the elite pariaharchy who currently hold way too much power and shoulder nowhere near enough responsibility.

Personally, as I shall discus in a forthcoming post, I believe that the ultimate aim must be for an even deeper and direct form of democracy (one which is humanist, ecological and economic as well as political) as part of a new radical movement based on the unique problems and possibilities of life in the third millennium CE. But even the first – and in my opinion rather minor – step of introducing Proportional Representation would radically alter the face of democracy in the UK.

A parliament of many smaller parties representing diverse demographic and geographic needs would inevitably lead to greater political (and perhaps, in our gambling based global economy, economic…) uncertainty, but at least it would be better at representing a fluid and diverse nation. So, if we are prepared to believe, as the permaculturalists do, that every problem is a solution, and that every crisis is an opportunity, then an uncertain future may indeed be exactly what we need right now…

…probably…

…maybe?

DONCOPOLITANISM: Zen and the Art of Doing

market garden estate

Last week I spoke about how the Doncopolitan was driven by passion; how Rachel and I (with help from our many contributors, advertisers and supporters, of course) have built both a magazine and, we hope, a new-found faith in Doncaster with very little money, no time (with no money we have to work other jobs just to pay the bills, so the magazine is largely made at night, which also means…), no respite and in a seemingly constant battle against the naysayers.

Why would we tire ourselves to breaking point for an arts and culture magazine?

Well, despite the fact that Doncaster *really* did need an arts and culture magazine, the Doncopolitan has always been much more than that. From the first issue it has been a manifesto for change. One which argues that we, the people of one of the poorest regions in England, can and will…

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The Echo of The Voiceless: Pt 1

Everyday People.png

Like it or not, the UK (as it is currently constituted) has decided to leave the EU. What this means for us in socioeconomic terms will only become evident over the coming decade. Likewise what it means for Britain as a unified whole will only become evident over the course of the next couple of years. The one thing we can be certain of is that the entire process has laid bare the terrible state of politics and democracy in Britain, right here, right now.

From the very beginning the referendum was a farcical affair. What we needed was a year-long process (at the absolute minimum) of information, education and debate. What we got, for what was billed as ‘the most important decision in a generation’, was a short-lived barrage of sound-bite, fear-mongering, popularist jingoism and media hype.

If we have learned anything from this referendum it is that the powerful and the political on both sides of the debate have nothing but contempt for everyday people. By ‘everyday’ I mean the people I spend every day with; the former – and formerly loved – ‘working class’ people of the regions which, once upon a time, made up the  Labour heartlands. I live in Doncaster, where 69% of voters ticked the ‘Leave’ box.

Neighbours and work colleagues I’ve spoken to (not so much friends, as I inhabit largely left wing circles, but more on that later) were all hungry for more information. Rather than focusing on the immigration debate – which made up 90% of the vox pops in the media (a propaganda strategy used to reinforce classism for the last 50 years) – the majority of people voiced concern for the immediate welfare of their friends and family and many spoke about their fears for an uncertain future… the kind of thing which should be at the heart of every political decision (more on that later too).

People were truly torn and many felt that they were making a decision between a rock and a hard place… it is not as if we’re exactly thriving under the EU, despite the £millions of EU funding which has been pumped into the region. None of this was reflected in the media or in the attitudes of politicos… both left and right.

The right have always seen us as feckless, lazy, uncultured and lowly. We should never be surprised by the undisguised hate which comes from a class of people who depend on others to do their work for them; if they did not look down upon us they would be forced to admit their complicity in our suffering. But it is the allegations from some on the left this morning which have uncovered the real crisis in modern democracy.

Apparently Britain’s poorest communities are full of ‘ignorant’, ‘uneducated’, ‘bigoted,’ ‘racists’ who fail to understand the enlightened message of the supposedly left-wing and socialist Remain campaign.

Ignoring the fact that this was a decision between which neoliberal, largely unaccountable, top-down bureaucracy would have the greatest sway over our lives, it is exactly this attitude towards poor working class communities from some on the left which ensures the mistrust of poor communities and ultimately guaranteed the Leave vote in the majority of  England’s and Wales’ forgotten towns. In fact it was the blatant arrogance of the mainstream left which caused much of the current political isolation in the first place; as the IWCA wrote after the defeat of Labour in last year’s general election:

The New Labour project was underpinned by the belief that Labour could ditch Clause 4, embrace neo-liberalism and orientate entirely to the middle class, safe in the knowledge that its working class core vote could be taken for granted because, in Peter Mandelson’s words, they had ‘nowhere to go’.

Cruddas says that its current plight ‘could be the greatest crisis the Labour party has faced since it was created. It is epic in its scale’. Post-New Labour, what is the Labour party for? If it cannot retain working class support in its heartlands, if it is no longer seen as the party of the class by a significant and growing section of the working class, what is its reason to exist? Can this ever be resolved? Having lost Scotland, and facing constituency boundary changes that will likely work against them, will it ever be able to form a national government on its own again? Labour, like the Lib Dems, are finding out the hard way that there is no need for three neo-liberal parties, or even two; and that gaining votes in Guardianland doesn’t compensate for the loss of the core it took for granted.

One only has to look across the Channel to mainland Europe to see the vacuum being filled by Euro-nationalist parties […] the French think-tank the Jean Jaurès Foundation, founded by the former French PM Pierre Mauroy to ‘promote the values of Democratic Socialism’, issued its analysis of the factors behind the rise of the Front National. It reported:

‘With no political offer from the left, working-class French people feel they have been abandoned economically, socially and culturally. The FN has stepped into the breach: it says to these people: “you are the most important and we will fight for you”.

‘The left is trying to make up to what it calls ‘real minorities’ who it believes are discriminated against. In doing so it has become indifferent, even scornful, of the wider French working class. They say to these native French “you have not understood, you are racist and sexist”, and so these people have said, so be it. They are ready to admit voting FN because the left has abandoned them and the FN is interested in them.’

In short, the left in France has abandoned class politics, embraced identity politics and taken the core working class vote for granted, and is now reaping the whirlwind.

The IWCA has been warning about the political vacuum in the former Labour heartlands for years. I believe in a different politics (which I shall elaborate upon in a future post), but, as somebody who lives and works in one of the poorest regions of Britain, I have the utmost respect for their analysis and a first-hand understanding of the classism which their work has helped to highlight. Labour and the left in general have no idea what it is like to live in impoverished Britain.

Every basic security has been swept away and every basic need has been hijacked by the neoliberal money machine. One of the most basic of human needs, shelter, has become a pension scheme for the affluent, causing the widespread return of absentee landlords and a rise in sub-standard living conditions. This has also helped to make house ownership all but an impossible dream for the vast majority of people living in impoverished towns. Without the dream of a better life who can really be enthused by the prospect of low-paid, zero-hour, menial work which will do little more than pay the bills and put food on the table until you die (usually prematurely of a poverty related disease). Despite the lack of truly attractive career opportunities the vast majority of us living in the former Labour heartlands are in employment – regardless of what the BBC would have you believe – most of the children living in poverty today (a full third of children in the UK) have one or both parents in work. The education which once might have helped to break us out of the poverty trap no longer exists (we are all ‘ignorant’ and ‘uneducated’ after all), because the vast majority of local schools now focus more on discipline than they do on education. Small wonder that British children are the loneliest and most prone to depression in Europe. As for that other poor epidemic, obesity (can’t they just exercise and eat quinoa?), our communities are surrounded by arable land, but our towns have become food deserts where its easier to buy pizzas than potatoes (unless, of course, they’re chipped!) and lettuces tend to be sold wrapped in pitta with kebab meat. Can anyone really fail to understand the bitterness, cynicism and anxiety which runs through these communities.

An influx of new people to towns where resources are already stretched to breaking point is always going to cause resentment. But to see this as racism, bigotry or ignorance completely misses the point. Sure there are dickheads, show me a single human community which doesn’t have its fair share of haters, but the truth is that these areas – even ‘too white, too working class’ Donny – are incredibly tolerant despite the socioeconomic crisis we’ve been suffering for years. Yes there are flash-points, but the haters are a noticeable minority.

Far from being ignorant bigots the majority of the one-time salt-of-the-earth are simply trying to make the best of a very bad situation; a situation exasperated by the fact that they have been abandoned by the political elite. But just because the political have abandoned impoverished communities it doesn’t mean that the people in those communities have abandoned politics. The myth of apathy does not hold water when over 70% of people actually registered to vote in the referendum. The EU referendum result was, in part, a protest by a people who feel – not without good reason – completely abandoned by the existing political status quo.

People are obviously desperate for change, but the changes which have been offered are all but meaningless because the power to affect change at a local level has been all but stripped away. I believe that, far from bemoaning our lot and attacking people for taking sides in an ill-thought out, farcical referendum, this result opens up an opportunity for new and expanded political debate and, more importantly, a new way of doing politics.

But, if we are to be truly democratic (and, for that matter, truly progressive) this debate must include the forgotten people of the former Labour heartlands.

(Rant over)