Posts Tagged ‘Milan’

Robots at the Philippe Plein Fashion Show in Milan

December 27, 2016

And Courtney Love, always assuming that she isn’t an android, of course.

I’ve got zero interest in fashion, but this is interesting as it’s stuff of Science Fiction today. I found this video of a fashion show in Milan for the designer Philippe Plein. This was based very much around robots. As you can see, Courtney Love and the models don’t come down a catwalk, but instead move along a conveyor. The music is provided by the German robot heavy metal band, Compressorhead, as well as a recording of Kraftwerk’s The Model, appropriately enough. Kraftwerk saw themselves as engineers of sound, and have performed with robots on stage themselves, or rather, with robotic versions of themselves, as well as cultivating a very robotic image themselves personally. A few years ago one of them published his autobiography, entitled I Was a Cyborg. As well as the robots of Compressorhead, there are big industrial robots moving about the stage filming the proceedings.

The Italian Futurists of the early 20th century would have really dug all of this. They were a militant artistic movement which celebrated war, masculinity, the new machine age and the speed of modern mass communication, like cinema newsreels, newspapers and radio. Their founder, the poet Marinetti, celebrated the motor car as ‘more beautiful than the Battle of the Samothrace’ in his Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, and declared that his movement ‘looked for the union of man and machine’. They dreamed of creating a world of biomechanical toys, designed ‘noise machines’ to be used in their musical concerts, and wrote pieces like The Agony of the Machine. One of their plays was about the love of locomotive for its driver. Plein’s fashion show clearly isn’t about aggressive masculinity, but feminine style. Nevertheless, the performance by the machines does take part in the spirit of Futurism as the art of the modern, industrial, machine age.

This fascinates me, as I think that there is room for the use of robots in serious art. Indeed, a feel that artists, musicians and choreographers have made all too little use of these devices in their performances. I know that at a time there was a vogue for people performing dances using forklift trucks to music. Many of these used to appear on children’s programmes, like the awesome Vision On. But this also shows that the artistic potential offered by machines really isn’t taken that seriously. These were amusing diversions for children, rather than serious art. But the potential to use them for high art is there, as the performance art and explorer of cyborgisation, Stelarc, has shown. His performances are, however, a bit too avant-garde for most people. I think, however, that it’s possible to use robots and cybernetics in traditional artistic forms, like music, drama and dance. A little while ago I blogged about a performance of Karel Capek’s robot play, R.U.R. in Prague, by an artistic group dedicated to exploring the implications of robots, using Lego robots. There are already machines like the British Robothespian, which act as guides in science museums. It should be possible to use robots like these in more serious artistic works. The only real problem with this, however, is the cost. These robots at the moment cost tens of thousands of pounds, which makes the use of more than two of them prohibitively expensive.

While I appreciate Plein’s artistic use of robots in his show, I also found them very slightly frightening. This points to a future, perhaps only a decade or so away, in which humans share the world with increasingly sophisticated machines with a great degree of autonomy. It is no longer a wholly human world, and people have to make their way amongst these sophisticated, and physically powerful devices. I don’t believe we’ll ever see a robot revolution, like R.U.R. or The Terminator, despite the pessimistic forecasts of Kevin Warwick in his March of the Machines. But this does seem to prefigure a future in which humanity has to share the planet with its mechanical creations, who have surpassed it in physical power.

Minister’s Mock Funeral in 1848 – Time for a Revival for Iain Duncan Smith?

June 12, 2014

1848 Book

I’ve been reading Mike Rapport’s book, 1848 – Year of Revolution (London: Little, Brown & Co 2008). This is about the ‘year of revolutions’, which saw uprisings against the old, Conservative orders and empires break out across Europe, in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Frankfurt, Milan, Venice, Prague, Krakow, Budapest and Galicia. Liberals and Democrats rose up in the hope of establishing more representative electoral systems, a wider franchise, or the abolition of the monarchies altogether. German and Italian Nationalists attempted to create a united Germany and Italy out of the various independent states in which their nations were separated, while Polish, Czech, Slovak, Magyar, Romanian, Serb and Croat nationalists attempted to forge their own states with a greater or lesser degree of autonomy and independence. This was also the year of the publication of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, when Europe was indeed haunted by workers’ protests and uprisings against the grinding poverty and squalor of the new, industrial age. These revolutions ultimately failed because of the contradictory demands and aspirations of the various groups involved, which then clashed with each other, allowing the conservatives to reassert themselves. It’s a gripping book, and I intend to give it a fuller review when I’ve read it.

I found an interesting piece of political theatre in the description of the workers’ protests against the return of the Emperor Ferdinand to Vienna on the 21st August 1848. The city, like many of the other revolutionary centres elsewhere, was suffering from economic depression, and a programme of public works had been put into practice to provide jobs for the unemployed. There was, however, pressure on the government to close them down in order to save money. The government chose instead to cut wages for those employed on them. The result was a workers’ demonstration through the suburbs on the 21st. The next day, the workers built an effigy of the minister for public works, and held a mock funeral for it. They declared that he had choked to death on the money he had taken from the unemployed. This unrest finally culminated in armed conflict between the workers and the National Guard on the 23rd, which saw the protest quashed.

The bitterly ironic declaration that the minister had choked to death on the money extracted from the unemployed could equally be applied to Iain Duncan Smith and the rest of the Tory and Tory Democrat coalition. After all, IDS and his fellows, Mike Penning and Esther McVey, have similarly provided over a system of public works, though one intended to give the illusion only of providing work. The wages for those on workfare is similarly smaller than that for ordinary work: it’s simply the claimant’s jobseekers’ allowance. And all this has been inflicted on the unemployed partly under the rationale that it is sound fiscal policy and balancing the budget.

So I think that the next time there’s a demonstration against IDS, Osbo, Cameron and the rest of them, it would be more than fitting for a mock funeral to be held for them. There is, however, one difference: IDS may not have choked to death on the money he’s extracted from the unemployed, the poor, and disabled, but too many of them have been killed for the governments’ savings. About 220 per week, or three every four hours. This should be more than enough to bury him politically.

Italian Chambers of Labour – Needed in 21st Century Britain

May 11, 2014

One of the peculiar institutions of the Italian working class movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the Camera Del Lavoro, or ‘Chamber of Labour’. They were based on the French Borse du Travaille (Labour Exchange) set up in France in the late 1880s. They were introduced into Italy by Osvaldo Gnocchi-Viani, a Socialist Milanese lawyer, in his 1889 book, Le Borse del lavoro. This led the leaders of the Milanese printers’ union and the Partito Operaio Italiano – the Italian Worker’s Party to establish the first Chamber of Labour in the city two years later in 1891. By 1904 ninety Chambers of labour, representing the nearly 300,000 workers had been set up throughout Italy.

The Chambers varied in structure, but most consisted of an assembly of representatives from the labour organisations participating in it. These in turn elected a governing body, such as an executive committee or commission, which organised its practical management. The Chambers were theoretically bureaux for employment and labour information. In practice they often had a wide variety of functions. They provided a meeting place for workers, conference and reading rooms, recreational facilities and also education. They organised strikes, boycotts and demonstrations, as well as mediating in industrial disputes. As well as representing the workers in dispute with private industry, they also did so with the local authorities, although many were in fact funded by these. While the trade unions were federated at the national level, the Chambers were autonomous organisations that included and brought together the various workers’ organisations in their local areas, and defended the interests of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers not represented in the skilled labour unions.

The Chambers were intended as purely economic in purpose, but in practice most followed the various working class political parties and organisations – the Socialists, Republicans, Syndicalists and Anarchists. The majority were Socialist. They frequently took the lead in organising demonstrations, strikes and protests against the government at the local level. The Chambers of Labour joined the federated trade unions to form the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro – General Confederation of Labour in 1906. They received their greatest increase in membership after the First World War, but went into rapid decline afterwards due to attacks from the Fascists. They were finally suppressed by Mussolini’s dictatorship in 1926 along with other, autonomous labour organisations.

The Chambers of Labour attracted Fascist hatred and violence because of their role in creating a powerful, autonomous working class. Changes in society since then has made many of their functions obsolete. The massive expansion of state education, for example, has removed some of the necessity for providing specific education courses aimed at workers, and entertainment is far more freely available today than it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the development of cinema, radio and television and the gramophone. Furthermore, many towns in Britain do have employment agencies, thus lessening the need for another of the Chambers’ functions.

However, I think something like the French and Italian Chambers of Labour/ Borses du Travaille/ Camere del Lavoro are still needed. Owen Jones in Chavs describes the destruction of working class culture and its colonisation by the middle classes. Football, which was for a long time the sport of the working classes, has become increasingly middle class. A proportion of the tickets for matches are reserved for parties from corporations as part of corporate hospitality. Ticket prices have become so expensive that many fans feel – and are – priced out of attendance at matches. Despite the government’s urging after the Olympics that more people should become involved in sport, actual sports facilities have been cut, so that the few which survive are oversubscribed.

Similarly, that hub of traditional working class culture, the pub is also under attack. Many are being closed down and redeveloped as flats. This has an effect far beyond simply where people go to drink their beer or alcoholic poison of choice. As well as the place where people traditionally met and relaxed, pubs were also the venues where local bands got their first gigs. Furthermore, a variety of local clubs and groups also meet in pubs and bars. Pub closures also effect the continued existence of these groups by denying them a venue.

As for general cultural activities, Quentin Letts in his book, Fifty People Who Buggered Up Britain, contrasts the loutishness and slovenly ignorance of much of today’s popular culture with the attitude of the miners portrayed in the film, The Pitman Painters. These were a real group of mineworkers, who taught themselves to paint over a century ago. They were not unique. One of the functions of the Mechanics’ Institutes, founded in the 19th century across Britain was to spread education and culture amongst the working class as part of the general Victorian attitude of improvement. The intentions behind them were paternalistic. The complaint was made at the time that they were founded by the middle classes, and patronised predominantly by the more skilled, affluent and presumably aspirational workers, while those less fortunate stayed away. They were also intended partly to bring employer and employees together and so create class peace. Nevertheless, they did contribute to improving the conditions and the educational and cultural opportunities available to the workers.

Owen Jones also points out in Chavs that some of the rise in racism and anti-immigrant feeling is a reaction to the way White working class culture has been attacked and discarded as worthless by the middle classes and the major political parties. Their celebration – rightly – of the cultures of Britain’s ethnic minorities and immigrant communities, in the absence of a corresponding celebration of traditional British working class culture has resulted in working class Whites feeling marginalised and resentful in their own country. The result is a rise in support for the BNP – now peaked – and UKIP. He suggests that one way of combatting this racism and xenophobia is simply to stress a common, working class identity stretching across ethnic groups.

Finally, trade unions were attacked and devastated by Thatcher’s onslaught, and the continued attacks by her successors, including those in the Labour party. Tony Blair remembers in the 1990s threatened to cut union ties, and Ed Milliband has also demanded further cuts to union power and states he wishes to reach out to the middle classes. We need new forms of industrial organisation to represent and protect the poorly paid workers in unskilled or semi-skilled work, like the hundreds of thousands now staffing call centres, a point Guy Standing makes in A Precariat Charter. And I believe that an employment bureau, controlled by the workers themselves, might just help to empower the workers and employees themselves against the employers in the jobs market.

The Chambers of Labour were peculiar features of the French and Italian working class movements, but something like them is still desperately needed in 21st century Britain as the Tories try to drag us back to the 19th century.

The Overthrow of the French Parliament by the Workers in the 1848 Revolution

April 20, 2014

1848 Book pic

Peter Jones in his book The 1848 Revolutions (Harlow: Longman 1981) describes the events of February 1848 in Paris, which culminated in a mob of workers storming the French Chamber of Deputies to overthrow the government and the monarchy:

On 20 February 1848 the reformers and the opposition to Guizot’s government in France made plans to hold a political banquet in Paris. the banquet was banned by the government and, as a result, the common people of Paris held a procession through the streets in protest against the decision. Their leaders presented a petition to the Chamber of Deputies demanding Guizot’s resignation.

The discontent against the government, and against Guizot in particular, had been growing during 1847 but then it had largely been a campaign of middle-class politicians. Now it was the cause of the common people of Paris and on 22 February 1848 the police had to clear an unruly crowd in the Place de la Madeleine. The next day the King, Louis Philippe, dismissed Guizot and called on Mole to lead the government. But this concession had come too late, because on the same evening a great throng of people had made their way along the Boulevard des Capucines to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only to find their passage blocked by a troop of cavalry and infantry. According to Victor Hugo, the people at the head of the procession tried to stop and turn aside, ‘but the irresistible pressure of the huge crowd weighed on the front ranks’. A shot rang out, and in the panic that followed a whole volley was fired. At least forty people were killed. The victims were piled on a cart lit with torches and within a few hours the city was blocked with barricades.

On the following morning, 24 February, Alexis de Tocqueville, a prominent member of the Chamber of Deputies, left his house feeling that he could ‘scent revolution in the air’. A group of men gathered round him and asked for news, and he warned them that the only real danger to the government was if they themselves got too excited and took matters to extremes. ‘”That’s all very well, sir,” they said, “the government has got itself into this fix by its own fault; so let it get itself out as best it can …”‘ Louis Philippe had done just that – he had abdicated that same afternoon and a Provisional Government had been set up.

The Provisional Government would probably have decided in favour of a Regency but the invasion of the Chamber of Deputies by a crowd of workers on the afternoon of 24 February pushed the Provisional Government towards a republic. Paris was now in the hands of the workers and the ‘dangerous classes’. Earlier that day they had invaded the Tuileries Palace and dumped Louis Philippe’s empty throne in the courtyard. According to Flaubert the ‘common herd ironically wrapped up in laces and cashmeres … Hats with ostrich feathers adorned blacksmiths’ heads, and ribbons of the Legion of Honour supplied waistbands for the prostitutes’. Lamartine, who was popular with the people, nevertheless witnessed the invasion of the Chamber of Deputies with fear:

‘They crowded the corridors, and rushed with their cries of mortal combat into the spectators’ galleries. Their clothes torn, their shirts open, their arms bare, their fists clenched and resembling muscular clubs, their hair wildly dishevelled, and singed with cartridges, their countenances maddened with the delirium of revolution, their eyes smitten with the spectacle, so novel to them, presented by the Chamber … all revealed them as desperadoes, who were come to make the last assault on the last refuge of royalty.’

They were armed with pikes, bayonets, and sabres. ‘Down with the Regency!’ they shouted, ‘The Republic forever’. Their demonstration meant that the new Provisional Government was forced to include the Socialists Louis Blanc and Flocon, as well as a solitary but symbolic worker, Albert. (pp. 1-2).

From France, the revolutionary movement spread to Bavaria, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Milan and Palermo. It did not last. They soon fizzled out and were brutally suppressed. In France the forces of the Right regrouped, the Revolution was suppressed and the Provisional Government was replaced by the new monarchy of Napoleon III.

The Workers’ Uprising in the ‘June Days’

The workers rose up again in June in protest at the closure of the National Workshops providing work for the unemployed. Alexis de Tocqueville, the nobleman, whose book on Democracy in America is still one of the great texts of political science, states that they were motivated from hunger.

In that city there were a hundred thousand armed workmen formed into regiments, without work and dying of hunger. Society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common envy; those who had anything united in common terror. There were no longer ties of sympathy linking these two great classes, and a struggle was everywhere assumed to be inevitable soon… (De Tocqueville, Recollections, in Jones, p. 83).

We Need a Campaign, Not Revolution, to Put Workers and Socialists in Government Today

We don’t need a revolution in this country, with violence and bloodshed. What we do need are more mass demonstrations and pressure on the government and the political parties to change their policies. Now as then, people are starving. Mike over at Vox Political and the other bloggers has estimated that about 55,000 people are dying per year due to government sanctions. The rate could be as high as 78,000. This is massively unreported. Stilloaks over on his blog gives the names and the stories of some of the victims.

Furthermore, the working class are massively under-represented in government and parliament. All the parties are eager to chase the votes of the aspiring middle class, and while there is in itself nothing wrong with this, it has been done at the expense of the working class. Earlier generations of Labour politicians included people from the working class, who made their way into parliament from the trade unions. One of the earliest Labour politicians to be elected to Westminster was an agricultural worker, and gave his autobiography, I believe, the title of ‘From Plough to Parliament’. Ernest Bevin, Labour’s Foreign Minister under Clement Atlee, was a dock worker and founder, with Harry Gosling, of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Tony Blair and Ed Milliband have tried to loosen the Party’s links with the unions. And many of the modern ranks of politicians across the political spectrum come from very middle class backgrounds. Instead of trade union activism, they frequently come from a more academic background, having read of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Uni. The Tory and Tory Cabinet are a demonstration of this middle and upper class domination of politics and parliament. They are nearly all toffs with connections to banking and finance.

And the class composition of parliament and the parties shows in the parties’ economic and welfare policies. Any kind of nationalisation is considered unacceptable as they have adopted, to a greater or lesser extent, Thatcherite Neoliberalism. The government’s welfare policies, rather than address problems with the economy as the cause of poverty, blame the workers themselves for being too lazy or ill-prepared to find a job themselves. The result is a policy of punitive sanctions and highly coercive measures forcing the unemployed to work for their benefits to enrich private industry.

It’s time this stopped. We need proper, Socialist economic measures and the members and representatives of the working class back in parliament. The 1848 Revolution put, at least for a time, the Socialists Louis Blanc and Flocon in government, along with Albert, a worker. This was celebrated and praised as an example of what universal suffrage could achieve by the great German Socialist leader, Ferdinand Lassalle. The time is long overdue when a British government also included Socialists and workers.