Posts Tagged ‘nazism’

IDS’ Beliefs and Fascist Irrationalism

February 17, 2014

Ian Duncan Rimmer

Ian Duncan Smith: The Sane Choice

‘Do I detect a little anti-intellectualism here? Must’ve started about 1982 [the year Reagan was elected] I think’,

– Comedian Bill Hicks on being reproached for reading in a Virginia waffle house.

‘This man is dangerous. He believes his own propaganda.’

– German Conservative politician on Adolf Hitler.

Ian Duncan Smith doesn’t seem to like defending his policies rationally. His department has repeatedly refused demands to release the figures of the numbers of people, who have died due to being denied benefit support as a result of his reforms. Such requests are decried as ‘vexatious’. Other excuses for not releasing them include the straightforward admission that these would create public opposition to them, and prevent their implementation. Mike’s blogged about this a number of times on Vox Political, after his own request for the figures under the FOI was turned down. These statements are a tacit admission by IDS and the rest of his department that they know their policies are killing people by the thousands, and that they simply don’t work in the way they’re claimed. They just don’t want you and the rest of the British public knowing it.

When challenged whether his views are correct, IDS has been known to retreat into mere statements of belief. They are correct, according to IDS, because he believes in them.

Another political figure, who used much the same arguments, stressing belief, rather than rationality, was the Right-wing German writer, Ernst Junger. Junger stated that it was completely unimportant whether a cause was true or not. What was important was ‘to sacrifice oneself for a faith, regardless of whether that faith embraces truth or error.’

Junger was one of the intellectual precursors to Nazism. He declared that it was a privilege to take part in the intellectuals high treason against intellect. Unlike the Left, who were horrified by war, Junger saw it as inspiring and ennobling, glorifying the First World War and its violence in his 1922 collection of essay Der Kampf als innere Erlebnis (Struggle as Inner Experience). He stated

Combat is one of the truly great experiences. And I have still to find someone to whom the moment of victory was not one of shattering exaltation… I should not like to do without this force among the complex of emotions that drive us through life.

Considering war as a necessity and a release, he further stated that in military combat

the true human being makes up in a drunken orgy for everything he has been neglecting. Then his passions, too long damned up by society and its laws, become once more uniquely dominant and holy and the ultimate reason.

He therefore urged for a state of Total Mobilization, in which work would be a preparation for war. This would lead the working class away from Socialism and Marxism, and spread nationalism further throughout society. Of the First World War he said

This war is not the end, but the chord that heralds new power. it is the anvil on which the world will be hammered into new boundaries and new communities. New forms will be filled with blood, and might will be hammered into them with a hard fist. War is a great school, and the new man will be of our cut.

Other Right-wing intellectuals also shared Junger’s irrationalism. Junger was influenced by Oswald Spengler, whose ‘The Decline of the West’ exerted a profound influence on Fascist and nationalist groups in Germany and throughout Europe. In his 1924 speech On the Political Duties of German Youth, Spengler declared

Whether one is right or wrong-that doesn’t amount to much in history. Whether or not he is superior to his adversary in a practical way, that is what decides whether he will be successful. .. To be honourable and nothing else-that’s not enough for our future… To train oneself as material for great leaders, in proud self-denial, prepared for personal sacrifice, that is also a German virtue. And, given the case that, in the hard times ahead, strong men will appear, leaders to whom we must entrust our fate, then they must have something upon which they can rely. They need a generation such as Bismarck did not find, which appreciates their kind of action and does not reject it for romantic reasons, a dedicated band of followers who have, but way of long and serious self-training, come to the point of understanding the necessary and do not-as would doubtless be true today -reject it as un-German.

Both Hitler and Mussolini saw their parties as movements, first and foremost, in which action and belief came before reasoned analysis and political programmes. Hitler refused to announce the Nazis’ programme for the 1933 German elections because

All programmes are vain; the decisive thing is the human will, sound vision, manly courage, sincerity of faith, the inner will.

Mussolini attempted to give Fascism a quasi-religious element in the policy of Fascismo Mistica, that would render it invulnerable from rational attack. Ten years before Hitler’s statement, he declared that Fascism was, above all, a myth:

We have created our myth. The myth is a faith, it is passion. It is not necessary that it shall be a reality.

George Sorel

This Right-wing celebration of the forces of unreason, of belief and violence instead of rationalism and intellectual analysis and discussion, ultimately derives from Georges Sorel. Sorel was a Syndicalist, who believed that the workers should use trade unions to seize power in through violent revolution in a General Strike. However, it was not necessary that the General Strike should actually occur. All that mattered was that it should provide an inspiring myth that would encourage the workers to action against the bourgeoisie.

This irrationalism was designed to place the central, mobilising ideas of Fascism and Nazism beyond rational criticism.

Just to assert the supreme importance of such things as race, blood, soul, will character, and manly courage is to place all politics beyond criticism, since obviously belief in such things is impervious to rational attack. To say that modern Italy is the heir of Imperial Rome, that the Third Reich is the continuation of the empire of Barbarossa, that liberalism is foreign to the ‘Latin mind’, that purity of race is more important than thought, that ‘insight’ is more valuable than ‘barren intellectualism’-all of these assertions may be ridiculous, but they are argument at a level above-or below-that at which refutation is possible.

Lane W. Lancaster, Masters of Political Thought III: Hegel to Dewey (London: George Harrap & Co. Ltd. 1959) 300.

And so it is with Ian Duncan Smith. His statements that he ‘believes’ in his policies towards the unemployed and the disabled is also intended to put them beyond rational questioning.

Now Conservativism isn’t Fascism, even though many of the proto-Nazi writers of the Weimar period, such as Moeller van den Bruck, considered themselves ‘revolutionary conservatives’. Nevertheless, Conservatism does share with Fascism a stress on the irrational, and an appeal to social solidarity rather than rational arguments. This is particularly clear in Private Eye’s review of Roger Scruton’s 1987 Untimely Tracts

Roger Scruton is an anomaly: a conservative intellectual. In the past, few Tories have felt a need to theorize and few have been able to write or enunciate clearly. Even now most Tory utterances are pleasantly uncomplicated: the faithful barking of Paul Johnson, say, or the appreciative gargling of Auberon Waugh.

But this will not do for Professor Scruton. He wants his arguments; he has to have his reasons. Of course, to well-brought-up Tories this simply show him up as a grammar school bug, too keen by half. Scruton knows that intellectuals are a bit off, but he just can’t help himself. He is a philosopher, through and through. For the social solidarity which stiffens most reactionaries, he seeks to substitute a flow of ‘hences’ and ‘therefores’.

‘Rogers’ Thesaurus’ in in Francis Wheen, ed., Lord Gnome’s Literary Companion (London: Verso 1994) 287-8.

Hence the furious denunciations of Left-wing intellectuals and academics for daring to question rationally traditional society and its institutions. It’s therefore not surprising that Scruton in the above book declared that most teachers were ‘diseducated’, lamented that the majority of MPs ‘are no longer from a social class which feels no need to use the Commons for the purpose of social gain’ and defends hereditary peerages as essential to economic stability.

Now I am not accusing IDS of being a Fascist, but his appeal to belief to defend his policies, rather than reasoned argument, is part of Fascist irrationalism. You can also see a Fascistic element in his militarism, and the determination to use mass mobilisation – workfare – to mould the working class to take them away from socialism. Under IDS this is much less to do with forming work as preparation for war, and so giving the workers an element of excitement, but of simply crushing their wills to reduce them to the level of servile drones for international capitalism.

All this needs to be challenged, and IDS held to account. His appeal to belief, rather than facts and figures, is ridiculous and dangerous, just as it was to a far great extent with the Nazis and Fascists.

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Twitter’s Censorship and the Totalitarianism of the DWP’s ‘Brand’

February 7, 2014

jon-woodcock

Jon Woodcock, Brand Manager of the Department of Work and Pensions

I’ve reblogged Tom Pride’s article this morning on his site, Pride’s Purge, about Twitter’s censorship of a parody account satirising the DWP, @UKJCP. This was done at the request of Jon Woodcock, ‘Brand Manager’ at the Department of Work and Pensions. Woodcock wanted the account closed down because

‘it had been set up with the deliberate and malicious intent to devalue and criticise the work of Jobcentre Plus. In addition, there are a number of rude and potentially libellous tweets aimed at UK government, elected politicians and the heads of large private sector organisations who are committed to working with government on reducing unemployment.’

Woodcock appears to be somewhat confused about recent developments in freedom of the press, such as those that have occurred within the last 200 years or so. His pompous statements about the malicious criticism of Jobcentre Plus, and the potential libelling of their collaborators in the private sector recalls nothing so much as the way dissenting journalists in the 18th and 19th centuries were prosecuted for ‘seditious libel’ when satirising or criticising the government of the day and its ministers. Robin Day similarly hated the government being sent up. He described the satirical sixties TV show, That Was the Week That Was, which blazed the path now followed by the Not the Nine O’clock News, The News Quiz, Have I Got News For You, Spitting Image and Mock the Week as ‘deplorable’. Woodcock seems to share the same attitude. Presumably he winces every time Michael Portillo shows him his collection of early political cartoons. As his comments show, he does seem to be the type of man who’d like to censor Hogarth, Cruikshank, Gillray et al.

Then there’s the problem of why a government department should require a ‘brand manager’ at all. This is another idea that seems to have come in from general industry management culture. Many companies are extremely jealous about their brand imagery, to the point where they become extremely possessive and intolerant of anybody sending it up, or using the same kind of image as it’s part of general culture. In the 1990s Hollywood produced a film about the Loch Ness Monster. This was all well and good, but the film’s producers then tried to shut down a website about ‘Nessie’, because, as the producer’s of a film about the Loch Ness Monster, they decided that they owned copyright to the creature. Woodcock seems to come from this part of commercial culture.

goebbels

Josef Goebbels: Minister for Public Enlightenment and Brand Manager of the Nazi Party

It is also very like the commercial branding used by Josef Goebbels and the Nazi party. Also back in the 1990s, the SF author William Gibson wrote a novel, in which the central character has such a gift for branding and marketing that they feel physical pain when exposed to products or material, which have a very strong, brand identity. There was some controversy over the book because of a passage, in which the character talks about the Nazis having a very strong brand image. Talking about the book on BBC Radio 4’s arts show, Front Row, Gibson said that the passage was inspired by his own experiences in Vienna. He had been wandering down one of the Austrian capital’s side streets, and came upon a shop selling Nazi memorabilia left over from the Anschluss and the Third Reich. Gibson noted how branded it all was, with every article carrying Nazi insignia, including the notepaper. Unfortunately, Gibson was right. The Third Reich was very careful in the construction of its corporate image and that of its numerous subsections.

From 1930-33 the propaganda section of the Nazi issued detailed instruction regarding the slogans, images and themes that should appear in their posters, leaflets and party papers. The following directions, signed by Goebbels, were issued in preparation for Presidential elections of March-April 1932

‘(a) Reich Propaganda Department to all Gaue and all Gau Propaganda Departments.
… a striking slogan:
Those who want everything to stay as it is vote for Hindenburg. Those who want everything changed vote for Hitler.

(b) Reich Propaganda Department to all Gaue and Gau Propaganda Departments
… Hitler Poster. The Hitler poster depicts a fascinating Hitler head on a completely black background. Subtitle: white on black – ‘Hitler’. In accordance with the Fuhrer’s wish this poster is to be put up only during the final days [of the campaign]. Since experience shows that during the final days there is a variety of coloured posters, this poster with it completely black background will contrast with all the others and will produce a tremendous effect on the masses … .

(c) Reich Propaganda Department
Instructions for the National Socialist Press for the election of the Reich President
1. From Easter Tuesday 29 March until Sunday 10 April inclusive, all National Socialist papers, both daily and weekly, must appear in an enlarged edition with a tripled circulation. Two-thirds of this tripled circulation must be made available, without charge, to the Gau leadership responsible for its area of distribution for propaganda purposes… .
2. From East Tuesday 29 march until Sunday 3 April iniclusive, a special topic must be dealt with every day on the first page of all our papers in a big spread. Tuesday 29 March: Hitler as a man. Wednesday 30 March: hitler as a fighter (gigantic achievements through willpower, etc.). Friday 1 April. Hitler as a statesman-plenty of photos…
3. On Sunday 3 April at noon (end of an Easter truce), the great propaganda journey of the Fuehrer through Germany will start, through which about a million people are to be reached directly through our Fuehrer’s speeches… The press organisation is planned so that four press centres will be set up in Germany, which in turn will pass on immediately any telephone calls to the other papers of their area, whose names have been given them….’

From Nazism 1919-1945 – A Documentary Reader, 1: The Rise to Power 1919-1934, edited by J. Noakes and G. Pridham, (Exeter: University of Exeter 1983) 73-4.

And commercial companies were all too willing to exploit Hitler and the Nazis’ powerful brand. After Hitler seized power in 1933 under the Enabling Law, numerous German companies began marketing their products using the Fuehrer’s image. There was even a brand of sardines or smoked mackerel – I forget which – called ‘Gute Adolf’ – ‘Good Adolf’. The Italian Fascists were also no slouches in this direction. The manganello, the club Mussolini’s squadristi used for beating up their enemies, also appeared in advertising and other popular art, sometimes even as baby’s rattles.

These are simply the totalitarian expression of Jon Woodcock’s concern for his department’s brand image, taken to its most grotesque and extreme extent, and similarly used by regimes intolerant of dissent and desperate to compel the masses to give them their absolute and unthinking support.

Woodcock’s and Twitter’s censorship of @UKJCP should be a national scandal. It is, after all, another assault on free speech by a corrupt and intolerant regime that is seeking every opportunity to stifle it through legislation like the gagging laws. It also shows the way corporate branding in the hands of government departments is becoming totalitarian in its scope and basic attitudes.

The Increasingly Authoritarian Character of Democratic Governments Across Europe

January 15, 2014

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’ve been attending a course at the M Shed here in Bristol intended to better equip we unemployed to find and hold down a job. It’s an interesting mix of people from a variety of backgrounds, and it’s fascinating talking to them about their experiences and hearing their perspectives on the government and the current situation. One of the ladies on the course is Polish, and its interesting talking to hear about her country and the situation over there after the fall of Communism. Alarmingly, it seems that in both Britain and supposedly democratic Poland, the political elites are becoming increasingly suspicious and distrustful of their citizens.

We’ve seen this most recently in Britain in Ian Duncan Smith’s militaristic conduct before the Work and Pensions Committee. Smith appeared before the Committee accompanied by bodyguards and armed policemen, who pointed their weapons at the public gallery, including a party of disabled people and their carers. Quite what Smith feared a group of respectable members of the British public, who had already been checked by security, would do is a mystery. Presumably he now simply thinks that anyone disabled constitutes some form of threat, regardless of their ability or even basic willingness to assault him. This disgusting incident, the Coalition’s attempt to suppress democratic debate by third parties in their Transparency and Lobbying Bill and the threat to the right to peaceful demonstration posed by the latest anti-nuisance legislation, are merely a part of a long process that has been going on since Thatcher.

One of the other people attending the course jokes about wanting a job as an assassin so he can kill David Cameron. When he did so this week, I replied that he might have a problem with that, as I think there’d be a queue. Someone else added that you’d have a problem getting anywhere near him with the security he’s got round him. I told the Polish lady that this was a real issue. I described how Downing Street had originally been open to the public, who were quite able to go up and down the street as they wished. It was now closed off, and there were similar restrictions around the Houses of Parliament.

She replied that it was like that in Poland. One of her relatives had worked at the Ministry of Information during the Communist dictatorship. At the time it was quite open to the public, so that anyone could walk in off the street and talk to an official there. There was someone sat at a desk watching them, but that was all the security there was. Now it’s completely different. To get into the building now, a visitor has to pass through several layers of security. She said it was one ironic that the place was now so heavily guarded under democracy, when it had been free of this during the Communist dictatorship.

Listening to this, it seems to me that there is a common process at work across the globe. The Guardian’s John Kampfner wrote a book a few years ago discussing how the world’s governments, from Blair’s Britain to Singapore, Putin’s Russia and China, were increasingly suppressing democracy. He believed that at the time the world’s governments were doing this, they were also trying to provide for economic growth. This is almost certainly true in the case of the three other nations I’ve mentioned here, but I see absolutely no evidence of George Osborne being interested in making anyone wealthy, except those who are colossally rich already. The governing elites, whether in the nominally democratic West or in the authoritarian states of Putin’s Russia, Singapore or China, increasingly fear and distrust the people, on whose behalf they claim to govern. In Britain some of this increased security was a result of the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign, which in the 1980s saw a bomb attack on hotel venue for the Conservative Party conference in Brighton, and a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street. More recently there have been fears of Islamist terrorists following the 7/7 London suicide bombers, and other attempts, like that during the G8 conference in Glasgow, which have mercifully been foiled.

The increased level of security, and the restrictions on the individual’s right of access to parliament, or passage through Downing Street, is far out of proportion to the actual level of threat. When Blair placed further restrictions on how close public demonstrations could come to parliament, the Conservative press strongly criticised him, pointing out that such measures weren’t imposed by previous governments, even during the IRA’s terror campaign. It seems very much to me that there now exists across Europe and the rest of the world, a transnational governing elite that, in the West at least, loudly and ostensibly declares its support for democracy while harbouring a deep suspicion of the masses whose interests they claim to represent, but with whom socially and educationally they have nothing in common.

And that’s every bit as grave a threat to democracy as any group of murderous extremists. The problem is particularly obvious and acute in eastern Europe. After the fall of Communism in the former East Germany, some of its citizens experienced ‘Ostalgie’, a nostalgia for their old, Communist country. Despite the federal government’s attempts to prop up the old, Communist industries, many of the firms simply could not compete in the new, free Germany and went under. The result was a wave of unemployment. Faced with a democracy that seemed unable to provide for them, some turned instead to the Far Right. There have been similar problems elsewhere in eastern Europe, and other countries have also seen the emergence of extreme Nationalist parties. If democratic governments cannot provide their citizens with a better standard of living than they had under the dictatorships, and actively seem more dictatorial and authoritarian in their way, there is a real danger that their citizens will turn to anti-democratic, authoritarian movements, whether of the Right or Left.

That’s one of the dangers in the East, quite apart from the present danger that, across the globe, Neo-Liberal elites, mouthing reassuring slogans about democracy and pluralism, are gradually suppressing democracy where it conflicts with their policies.

Gove on Blackadder and the First World War: Part Two – The British Went to War against German Social Darwinism

January 7, 2014

I’ve already posted a piece supplementing Mike’s excellent pieces over on Vox Political about Michael Gove’s comments in the Daily Mail attacking Blackadder, Oh, What A Lovely War, and ‘Left-wing academics’ for undermining the patriotism, honour and courage of the troops, who served in that conflict. In that piece I pointed out that the bitterness and rejection of patriotism for which Gove reproaches Blackadder was itself a product of the First World War, and that rather than a creation of ‘left-wing academics’, it was based very firmly in the experiences and testimony of the men who fought instead.

There is, however, something far more pernicious Gove’s comments about the First World War than simply the knee-jerk resort to patriotism of a True-Blue Thatcherite Tory. This is Gove’s statement that Britain went to war with Germany because of their ‘Social Darwinism’. This simply is not true. Social Darwinist theories were held by people right across the West from the late 19th century onwards, and certainly not just in Germany. There have been a numbers of studies, which have shown that the belief in the ‘economic survival of the fittest’ underpinned much Liberal economic and social theorising, and was used by wealthy magnates, like the Carnegies in America, to justify their opposition to state intervention, welfare, and health and safety legislation. The chattering classes all across Europe and the West also discussed legislation to limit and sterilise the indigent poor and congenitally disabled, in order to prevent them overrunning society and outbreeding their physical, mental and social superiors. These ideas formed the core of Nazi ideology, but they actually predate them. Modern eugenics, by which the unfit were to be bred out through carefully controlled selective breeding, was founded by Francis Galton in England, Darwin’s cousin. In the 1920s 45 American states passed legislation providing for the sterilisation of the congenitally disabled and particularly the mentally retarded. There was a scandal nearly two and a half decades ago at the precise week of Lady Diana’s death, when it was revealed that Sweden had still continued its campaign of sterilisation right in the 1970s. This legislation also predated the Nazis. The Swedish programme’s definition of who was congenitally unfit included sexually promiscuous girls, and members of the Tartare, Travellers rather like the Gypsies. Unlike the Gypsies, they were not considered to constitute a separate ethnic group, who were exempt from the eugenics legislation, and so they, like non-Traveller Swedes, were taken and sterilised. It was only very recently that the Tartare won recognition as an ethnic group in their own right, and so qualified for compensation for their members’ forcible sterilisation.

The same eugenicist and Social Darwinist attitudes pervaded British society. Ernest Beveridge, before he accepted the recommendations of the Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Socialist Medical Society on which the Beveridge Report was based, also shared these views. He believed that unemployment and disability benefits should only be given to men, on the condition that they were sterilised as ‘dysgenic’ due to their inability to support themselves. It was also espoused by sections of the British military. H.W. Koch, in his paper ‘Social Darwinism as a Factor in Imperialism’ in the book The Origins of the First World, edited by Koch himself and published by MacMillan in 1972, demonstrated, with numerous quotations, how Social Darwinism formed part of the expansionist ideology of the British military in the First World War. Leading British generals and admirals advocated war with Germany as it was believed that it was through violent conflict that the unfit were weeded out and organisms and nations evolved further. Gove’s comment that Britain went to war with Germany not only ignores this, but actually falsifies the true situation in that Social Darwinism was found on the British as well as the German side.

German historians believe that the First World War was not the fault of their country, but was due to a general move to war across Europe as a whole. This view is generally rejected by historians outside Germany, who believe that the War was caused by Germany’s desire to punish the Slavs for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand the Second by Gavrilo Princip in Serbia. Nevertheless, the web of alliances that the various powers had constructed across Europe in order to prevent war acted to pull all the various nations, their colonial possessions, and extra-European allies into the conflict. Britain had become increasingly alarmed by growing German economic and military power from the late 19th century onwards. There were a series of early science fiction stories and novels, such as the Battle of Dorking, which foresaw a future German invasion of and conquest of Britain. As a result, Britain engaged in an arms race with Germany to the extent that there were already arms limitation treaties signed in 1905 between the two nations.

There were also a number of other factors involved, and I urge those interested to read ‘Sean’s’ comments to Mike’s first article on Gove and his comments about Blackadder. He knows rather more about the war and its causes than I do. He points out that the Italian Prime Minister had a few years before the War prevented it from breaking out, from example. The point here is that Britain certainly did not go to war with Wilhelmine Germany to combat the latter’s Social Darwinism, as it was shared by this country’s own chattering and military classes, but was instead due solely to geo-political questions relating to the balance of power in Europe and freedom and autonomy of Serbia and the other Slavonic nations. To state that it was is to misrepresent the origins of the War, and produce a false, pernicious picture that ignores and covers up the prevalence of Social Darwinist views in Britain and the rest of the world. It presents a nasty, black-and-white image of righteous, enlightened Allies versus proto-Nazi Germans, quite at variance with the reality.

Beyond Gove’s ignorance of the causes and spiritual, social and cultural effects of the First World War, there is the wider issue of his attitude to education and particularly the teaching of history. Gove has specifically targeted ‘left-wing academics’ for being, as he appears to see it, unpatriotic. This has been a common complaint of the Tories ever since the days of Thatcher and before, when the Express and Mail regularly carried stories of the ‘loony left’ indoctrinating vulnerable minds with subversive subjects like Peace Studies, and attacking British identity in the guise of anti-racism. I can remember Maggie sneering at one Tory conference about ‘Fabians’ and ‘anti-racist mathematics’. Now there may have been a minority of leftist radicals like that, but most weren’t, and in any case, most teachers are teachers because they want to stand in front of a chalkboard and teach, not indoctrinate their pupils one way or the other. One of the most precious, fundamental qualities in British academia is the freedom to think, debate and argue without having to bow to the dictates of the state. By attacking teachers and the academics, who hold views on the First World War and its origins at variance to his own, Gove has attacked this principle.

And this is very serious indeed. Academic freedom is under assault across the world. In Russia last year, Putin passed a law partially rehabilitating Stalin. This piece of legislation makes it illegal to denigrate Stalin as the saviour of Russia during the Great Patriotic War, the old Soviet name for World War Two. Now Stalin did indeed save the Soviet Union, but only after he signed a non-aggression pact with Ribbentrop and was totally unprepared for the Nazi invasion to the point where in the first days of the German assault Russian troops were forbidden to fire back. Far worse than that, the old brute was responsible for the deaths of 30 million Soviet citizens during the Purge. This may be an underestimate, as the true figure is unknown. It could be as high as for 45 million or more. A few years ago the BBC screened a programme on modern Russia, in which the presenter travelled to one of Stalin’s gulags. The place was dilapidated and decaying, but there were still the remains of the barracks, guardhouses and other buildings. Most chillingly, however, there were lying scattered on the ground the bare bones of the inmates, who had been starved, tortured and finally worked to death in that terrible place.

Historians and archaeologists are extremely wary about allowing nationalist bias into their work. Every nation has, of course, its own view of history, including its own. The ideal, however, is to produce an objective account free of nationalist bias. It was one of the first things I can remember being taught in history as an undergraduate. And one of the most compelling reasons for avoiding it was the way history was used and distorted by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, like Stalin’s Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, to justify their brutal, murderous tyrannies. It has also been used to justify the invasion, colonisation and expropriation of the subject nations of the European empires around the world and the racist policies that legitimised the rule of their White masters. Hence the emergence of Historical Archaeology. The name is somewhat misleading, as it does not deal with the archaeology of the broader period for which historical records survive, such as from the ancient world onwards, but rather more narrowly of the period c.1500 to the present day. It’s called Historical Archaeology as it was founded by American researchers, for whom the written history of their country really only dates from the fifteenth century. As a discipline, Historical Archaeology tries to recover the voices and experiences of the subordinate social groups oppressed and subjected by the forces of colonialism and capitalism, who are rarely heard in the written historical accounts – the indigenous peoples, slaves, immigrants and other ethnic minorities, the working class masses and women. It’s an attempt to challenge the official histories produced by the colonial elites, which largely ignored and excluded these groups.

Gove wishes to ignore all this, to turn the clock back to what the historian Butterfield called ‘the Whig interpretation of history’, in which British history is one long process of gradual improvement, culminating in democracy and the British Empire. Gove is probably keen on the latter, but I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that the current administration pays anything but lip service to the notion of democracy. History is richer, and far more complicated than this, with frequent shameful episodes and periods when genuine oppression and brutality were all too common, and where it was never clear that the forces of humanity and justice would win. You can look, for example, at the period of vicious political repression that occurred in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, when the government tried to crack down on anything resembling subversion against aristocratic rule. It was a period characterised by the notorious Peterloo Massacre, when the British army and a squadron of Hussars charged a peaceful demonstration gathered to hear the radical politician, ‘Orator’ Hunt. Or the slave trade and the long campaign against it, which succeeded in outlawing it in the British Empire only in 1840. Real history gives the lie to the Whig Interpretation, and casts very grave doubts over the supposed justice of British imperialism. Gove, however, would prefer that the last fifty years and more of historical scholarship, in which the Victorian view of the correctness and justice of Britain, her society, and her imperial rule, was swept away, to be replaced with a cosily reassuring Conservative version justifying the traditional British class structure, capitalism and its militaristic expansion and invasion of the wider world. He wants to return to a history guided by the old adage, ‘My country, right or wrong’.

The best comment I’ve heard on that old saying was by the fictional space detective Nathan Spring in an episode of the BBC SF series, Star Cops, back in the 1980s. In a conversation with the very shifty, patriotic commander of an American space station, the conversation moves on to patriotism and conservatism.
‘My country, right or wrong, eh?’ remarks Spring.
‘There are worse philosophies’, replies the commander.
‘Yes,’ retorts Spring. ‘Most of them begin with that one.’

Gove’s attack on teachers and ‘left-wing academics’ is also part of a general, anti-intellectual trend in Conservative politics that’s been around since Reagan and Thatcher. Back in the 1980s, the great American comedian, Bill Hicks in one of his routines used to remark, ‘Do I detect a little anti-intellectualism here. Must date from the time Reagan was elected.’ This attempts to appeal to populist sentiment by presenting a left-wing view of history as a distortion forced upon vulnerable young minds in schools, colleges and universities by subversive left-wing teachers and college and university lecturers. It attempts to present the existing order as so obviously correct, that only out-of-touch, elite liberals, who themselves sneer and patronise the working class, wish to question and challenge.

Now, you can certainly find ‘loony-left’ teachers and lecturers of whom this is true. Most teachers and lecturers, in my experience, actually don’t want to indoctrinate young minds with dangerous and subversive doctrines so much as stand in front of a class and teach. Yes, they have their biases, but the goal is to teach an objective history as supported by the facts, although how history is interpreted naturally depends very much on the individual historian and how they see the past. Gove wishes to jettison all this, and replace academic freedom, in which the accepted view of events can be freely examined and questioned, with a Conservative, patriotic view dictated by the state. It’s an attack on the very core of academic freedom. Its the mark of an insecure political elite, who fear any questioning of their authority and their view of history. And if left unchallenged, will end with Britain becoming like Russia and so many other nations around the world, where children are taught only the official history, and the nation’s shameful actions and periods are ignored. In many of these nations, those that challenge the official view of history can be subject to intimidation and imprisonment. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, for example, has been imprisoned for insulting Turkish nationhood, because he said the country ought to admit to its culpability for the Armenian massacres. Gove’s view of history and his attack on academic freedom threaten to bring Britain close to that state.

Unfortunately, the Tories do have form for trying to use the law to purge the educational system of those, whose political views they do not share. A friend of mine, who was very much involved with his student union at Uni, informed me that in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher passed legislation intended to bar Marxists from holding posts at university. In the end, the law proved an unworkable dead letter, at the Marxists at whom it was aimed simply declared themselves to be ‘Marxian’, instead. They weren’t Marxists, but had a culture based on Marx. Hence they were exempt from such legislation. It was a very fine legal point, and some would say that it was a difference without distinction. Nevertheless, it did what it was intended to do and they kept their jobs.

Now I am aware of the reasons why Thatcher attempted to stop Marxists teaching at university, and the arguments that have been used to support it. Communist regimes around the world, from the Soviet bloc to China, have murdered millions. The argument therefore runs that if the extreme, racist right cannot be tolerated in academia because of their guilt for the murder of millions, and the murderously illiberal and intolerant nature of their doctrines, then neither should the extreme Left, who are equally guilty of such crimes. Nevertheless, there is a danger that when states start introducing legislation to regulate, who teaches in their schools and universities, based on their personal religious or political beliefs, then a step is taken towards further state control of what their citizens are allowed to think and believe, and freedom suffers. There is, rightly, legislation in place to prevent teachers and university lecturers indoctrinating their students with their personal religious or personal beliefs. Nevertheless, schools and universities are also places where students are encouraged to think for themselves, to explore different views and perspectives on particular issues, and make their own decisions. And given the immense contribution certain elements of Marxism have made to various academic disciplines, regardless of the merits or otherwise of Marxism itself as a political creed, it is only right and natural that Marxists should be allowed to teach and publish at universities, provided they too abide by the rules of open debate.

Baroness Thatcher attempted to use the law to close this down.

And Gove with this rant about Blackadder and ‘left-wing academics’ has attempted to go some way towards following her. If you value academic freedom, and right of everyone in academia to be able to teach and research, regardless of their political views, so long as they can support their views with fact and logical argument, then Gove’s latest rant, and his desire to indoctrinate young minds with his narrow view of history, must be resisted to the utmost.

Sources

Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators and Law Enforcers (Boston: Beacon Press 1997)

Philip Rahtz, Invitation to Archaeology: 2nd Edition (Oxford: Blackwell 1991)

D.G. Williamson, The Third Reich (Harlow: Longman 1982)

Blackadder, Patriotism and the First World War: Michael Gove Repeats ‘The Old Lie’

January 6, 2014

Anzacs World War1

Anzacs at Passchendaele, 1917, the battle described by A.J.P. Taylor as ‘the blindest slaughter of a blind war’.

I’ve reblogged two of Mike’s articles on Vox Populi on Michael Gove’s latest attack on history and the received view of the First World War. In an interview in the Daily Mail, Gove criticised shows like Blackadder and the film, Oh, What A Lovely War!, for presenting the wrong view of the First World War and denigrating the courage, honour and patriotism of the men who fought there. It is, he said, the fault of left-wing academics, and seems particularly incensed at the cynicism and rejection of patriotism in the above TV series and film.

Now, Gove does have something of a point here. Recent scholarship within the last 30 years has criticised the old view that there was a profound gulf between the officers and the working-class men they led, and pointed out that there was more mutual comradeship, acceptance and respect between the two groups than previously considered. I was also told by a very left-wing friend, who has absolutely no time for the Tory party, that the amount of cynicism and bitterness generated by the War has been overstated. Of the men returning from the War, 1/3 bitterly hated it, 1/3 thought it was a good adventure, and 1/3 had no strong feelings about it one way or the other.

The same friend also told me that on the Western Front, the death rate was actually lower than in contemporary Edwardian factories. His comment on this was simply: ‘It’s sh*t.’ This does not exonerate the mass carnage of the First World War so much as show you how immensely cheaply life was held by the Edwardian factory masters. As for courage, George Orwell freely admitted in one of his essays that this was amply demonstrated by the numbers of the titled aristocracy, including dukes, knights and baronets, whose lives were ended in that savage conflict. He called the militaristic anti-intellectual upper classes ‘blimps’, and had nothing but scorn for their conduct of the War, but he did not doubt their courage.

The same friend, who knows far more about the First and Second World Wars than me, also told me that he felt that much of the cynicism about the First World War was a projection of the feelings of bitterness and alienation felt by many people after the Second, when the horrors of War and the Nazi regime seemed, to many, to discredit completely European culture. I dare say there is something in this, but, while the extent of such alienation after the First World War may have been exaggerated, the point remains that it was there.

Already in the 1920s there were complaints from British officers about left-wing propaganda about the War being spread by ‘acidulated radicals’. The film, Oh, What A Lovely War! is written from a left-wing perspective. It was based on the stage play, Journey’s End, which in its turn was based, I believe, on the experiences of First World War soldiers. The Fascist movements that sprang up all over Europe after the War, including Oswald Moseley’s BUF in Britain, were formed by ex-servicemen unable to adapt to civilian life, and who believed they had been betrayed by a corrupt political system. Martin Pugh in his book on Fascism in Britain 1918-1986, repeats that Moseley himself represented and kept true to the servicemen, who had fought and suffered in the War, and now had little to look forward to on their return to Blighty. I’m not so sure. Much of the conventional view about Mosely put out by Skidelsky’s biography has since been demolished. Rather than being a misguided, but at heart decent man, Moseley himself now appears very firmly as a cynical political manipulator all too eager and ready to jettison Mussolini’s ultra-nationalist, but originally non-racist Fascism, for the Nazis and Hitler. Nevertheless, the point remains: the First World created widespread bitterness, of which European Fascism was one expression.

As for Blackadder, this can be compared to the grim reality and the gallows humour with which British squaddies and their officers faced it in the pages of the Wipers Times. This was the servicemen’s newspapers, which took its name from the British mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’, where it was published. Private Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop, last year published a book and appeared on a BBC documentary about it. The Beeb also broadcast a drama about it. Hislop stated that it was full of very, very black humour, and was very much like Blackadder. You could hear the same sentiments expressed in the trooper’s songs of the period. Everyone remembers ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, but there were others with much less patriotic view of the War. A year or so ago I came across an old songbook, Songs that Won the War. Published about the time of the Second, it collected the songs sung by the troops during the First. Amongst the various patriotic ditties was ‘We Are Fred Karno’s Army’. Fred Karno, remember, was the Music Hall impresario, who launched the career of silent move stars like Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops. The final verse imagines how the British army will be greeted by the Kaiser when they finally reach Berlin. It has the Kaiser looking at them in horror and saying, ‘Vot, Vot! Mein Gott! Vot a shabby lot!’ Somehow, I don’t think that one has been played much at Tory party conferences.

Civilian music hall stars also shared in the deep disillusionment felt by the troops. In a programme on the Music Hall broadcast several years ago on Radio 4, the programme’s presenter, a historian of the Music Hall, noted that after the War variety stars became much more sombre in appearance. Before the War there were stars like ‘The One-Eyed Kaffir’, a White man, who blacked up for his act except for one eye, which was kept as a white patch. After the War, such grotesque make-up vanished. The presenter felt that this was part of a general, more sombre mood throughout British culture engendered by the War. This mood was felt most bitterly by some of the Music Hall stars, who had sung patriotic, jingoistic songs to encourage young men to do their bit and join up. One such singer became very bitter indeed, and stated that he felt personally responsible for the men, who had been maimed and murdered as a result of listening to him.

The bitterness about the War has been expressed most famously, and most movingly, by the great war poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and others less well-known. One of the books in my old school’s sixth form library was Up the Line to Death, an anthology of poetry from the First World War. As well as poetry, Sassoon wrote a letter, ‘The Declaration against War’, in 1917, during his convalescence after being wounded in France. Rather than risk the scandal of a court martial, Owen was declared to be shell-shocked and hospitalised. His declaration is one of the piece anthologised in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport. Here it is:

‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise’.

The last line sounds very much like a condemnation of the invasion of Iraq and the Neo-Con ‘chickenhawks’ – men who had themselves never seen active service and who indeed had shirked it – that demanded it. And I’ve no doubt whatsoever that it’s applicability to this situation was one of the reasons Arnove and Firth selected it.

As for Owen, I can remember we did Owen’s poem, ‘Gassed’, in English. This describes the horrific state of squaddies left dying and blinded by mustard gas in conflict. It ends with words attacking and repudiating ‘the old lie, ‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”, a Latin motto meaning ‘It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.

So there it is, Gove, a rejection of patriotism because of the carnage and suffering it caused, by two extremely courageous men, who fought and were injured in the War. I believe Owen was himself killed just before Armistice. Oh, you can argue that Blackadder is based on the prejudiced view of left-wing academics, but they based their views on fact – on what those who actually fought in it actually felt about it.

Yes, historians modify their views about the past all the time, as new research is done, and new arguments brought forth, new topics emerge and techniques used. And that means that some of the bitterness about the War has been revised. Yet there is no doubt that the War did result in mass bitterness amongst former combatants and the civilian population, and feelings of betrayal by the old society and elites that had sent so many to their deaths. Blackadder is fiction, and throughout its four series and numerous specials often took wild liberties with the facts. Yet Blackadder goes forth and its cynicism was based on fact, and I found, as someone who simply watched it, that the final moments of the last episode, in which Blackadder, Baldrick and their friends go over the Top to their deaths, actually a genuinely moving and respectful tribute to those who did die in the muck and trenches.

Way back in the 1980s the Observer wryly remarked that the Tories were now ‘the patriotic party’. This followed Thatcher’s vociferous trumpeting of patriotism as the great British value. ‘Don’t call them boojwah, call them British!’ screamed one headline from the Telegraph supporting her very class-based, politicised view of Britishness and patriotism.

Well, a wiser man, possibly, the great Irish wit, dear old butch Oscar (pace his description in Blackadder) once described patriotism as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’.
In this case, it is. And so is Gove.

The Real Source of the Coalition’s Employment Policy: Morgus from Dr. Who’s ‘The Caves of Androzani’

November 30, 2013

Sometimes, life really does follow art. This week we had Boris Johnson telling a gathering of City bankers that ‘greed is right’, almost, but not quite, following Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko. The other night it struck me that the government’s way of tackling unemployment also seems to bear more than a little resemblance to another piece of 80s screen fiction, the Dr Who story ‘The Caves of Androzani’.

This was Peter Davison’s final regular appearance as the fifth Doctor. In it, the Doctor and Peri land on Androzani Minor, where they get caught up in a struggle between government forces, led by Major Chellak, and an army of androids, created by the mad scientist Sheraz Jek. Androzani Minor is the source of the drug Spectrox, which massively extends the human lifespan. Its production is controlled by a massive industrial combine, the Conglomerate, whose chairman is the avaricious and ruthless Krau Morgus. This has, however, been disrupted by Sheraz Jek. Jek had previously been employed by the Conglomerate, creating an android workforce, who could harvest the raw Spectrox safely. He was, however, betrayed by Morgus. Androzani Minor is subject to periodic mudbursts, geyser-like blasts of boiling mud caused by tidal action when the planet passes close to its larger twin, Androzani Major. Morgus sabotaged Jek’s instruments so that he was caught without warning in one of the mudbursts. Horribly disfigured and driven by an all-consuming desire for revenge, Jek has stopped production of the drug in order to force the Androzani government to kill Morgus. The government, in its turn, has sent in troops under Chellak to quell Jek and his androids and restore production.

Morgus, however, has managed to turn this situation to his own advantage. A ruthless businessman with absolutely no morals, Morgus is deliberately using the war to raise the price of Spectrox. He supplies the government forces with the arms and equipment they need, while also secretly supplying Jek through a group of mercenaries in return for shipments of Spectrox.

Spectrox in its raw state is highly poisonous, with the victims of Spectrox toxaemia dying in three days. The Doctor and Peri contract this after falling into a Spectrox nest. The plot revolves around the Doctor’s and Peri’s attempts to escape from Chellak, Jek and the mercenaries, and the Doctor’s efforts to find the antidote before they finally succumb to the poison. He is concerned primarily with saving himself and his companion. His mere presence on Androzani acts as a catalyst for increasing confrontation between Chellak and Jek, and the political and criminal machinations by Morgus, which finally culminate in his overthrow and downfall by his PA, Trau Timmon.

It’s a taut story, which combines the political thriller with elements of Restoration drama and Jacobean tragedy. At certain crucial points, Morgus turns to speak directly to camera. As in Jacobean tragedy, nearly everyone dies at the end, with the exception of Peri, Trau Timmon and the Doctor. Here’s a fan trailer for it from Youtube:

.

It’s Youtube address is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjH_hZZhaXw.

Morgus himself is smooth talking, exploitative and ruthless. When he finds out that one of the Conglomerate’s mines has produced too much copper, he arranges new equipment containing a bomb to be sent to the plant, which is destroyed in the resulting explosion. Fearing that Androzani’s president is aware of his duplicity, he personally pushes him down an empty lift shaft. Calling Trau Timmon to inform her of the tragic accident, he muses, ‘Still, it could have been worse.’
‘How so?’, she asks.
‘It could have been me.’

Here’s another fan produced piece from Youtube, showing Morgus as one of the fifty great Dr Who villains of all time.

It’s on Youtube at:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3mlkV6tmA0.

Particularly noteworthy here is Morgus’ solution to the social problems caused by unemployment. At 0.55 on the video he states ‘those without valid work permits will be sent to the eastern labour camps’. Morgus makes this comment in a conversation with the President, who drily observes ‘Where they’ll work for you for free’.
‘I hadn’t thought of that’, replies Morgus.
To which the President simply says, ‘I know’, while all the while looking at Morgus with eyes that say the complete opposite.

It’s this episode that reminds me very strongly of the government’s policy. After all, what is the Conglomerate’s deportation of the unemployed to forced labour camps except a form of workfare?

It’s been said that all Science Fiction is, despite its settings in the future, or on other worlds or parallel universes, about the issues facing present society. Workfare was certainly being discussed in the 1980s, when it was first introduced in America by the Reagan presidency. It’s been pointed out that much of the SF of the period is a reaction to the new, Conservative policies of the period, the privatisation of the economy and the growing power of frequently ruthless corporations. It is the Corporation in Alien and its sequel, Aliens, that sacrifices Ripley’s crewmates aboard the Nostromo, and the planet’s colonists and the marines sent to rescue them fifty years later in order to acquire the Aliens for the company’s weapons’ division. Another corporation, OCP, is also the villain in Robocop. The company acquires Detroit’s police force after it is privatised, and sets up a young, rookie cop, Murphy, to be gunned down in order to turn him into cybernetic law enforcement officer of the title. Morgus and the ruthless, exploitative Conglomerate can similarly be seen as a comment on the economic and social policies of Reagan and Thatcher. It is possible to go somewhat further, and suggest that the story’s also a disguised treatment of the Iran/Contra affair, in which the US government supplied arms to Iran and the Contras in Nicaragua, in return for the freeing of US hostages in Lebanon, and the shipment of cocaine into the US by the anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua.

It also needs to be noted, on the other hand, that the story is not necessarily an explicit comment on free-market capitalism. It’s assumed that the Conglomerate is privately owned, but it’s not stated. Both the Fascist and Communist dictatorships have used forced labour in industry, and so the use of unemployed slave labour in Morgus’ work camps could simply be based on those examples, especially as the work camps are on the ‘eastern continent’. Dr Who’s writers were clearly well aware of the way totalitarian states, particularly Nazi Germany, operated when devising their villains, such as Davros in The Genesis of the Daleks. Even so, free market capitalism under David Cameron has very definitely followed Morgus’ Conglomerate in the introduction of forced labour for the unemployed, even if they haven’t started to send people to Siberia yet. As for Morgus deliberately manipulating production to keep it profitably low, and create a reservoir of the unemployed, which he can exploit for free, the Angry Yorkshireman over at Another Angry Voice has pointed out that Neo-Liberal economics demands a constant unemployment rate of 6 per cent or so to keep labour cheap.

So, one way or another, Cameron’s government is following the Science Fictional policies of Dr Who’s Trau Morgus. Only without bombing mines and personally assassinating leading politicians. And it’s similarly time that someone brought it all to an end, though hopefully we won’t have to wait for a visitor from beyond the stars.

Further Observations on Workfare, Slavery and Negro Apprenticeship

November 10, 2013

Yesterday I put up a piece comparing George Osborne’s proposed expansion of workfare to the system of ‘apprenticeship’ imposed on former slaves in the British Caribbean after the official abolition of slavery in 1837. Under this system, the slaves remained tied to their former masters and forced to work on their estates, ostensibly in order to make them self-reliant and industrious, and so able to take their place as responsible members of society. Workfare is similarly supposed to train the unemployed to be self-reliant and industrious, and so prepare them for proper, paid work and their place as responsible members of society. In practice, both of forms of servitude in which nominally free men and women are forced to work as cheap labour for big business – sugar plantations in the 19th century, Sainsbury’s and so on in the 21st.

Now let’s look at some possible objections to this comparison, and see if they invalidate the statement that workfare constitutes a form of slavery.

1. Slaves have no political rights, and cannot hold property. Workfare does not interfere with the individual’s political freedoms, and their property remains theirs. Therefore, workfare cannot be seen as a form of slavery.

This argument does not refute workfare’s status as a form of slavery. The statement that slaves have no political rights and have no property was horrifically true of western chattel slavery, such as transatlantic Black slavery in Britain, the Caribbean and America. It is not true of other forms of slavery and servitude. For example, in the ancient world and in some forms of African slavery, the slave could own property and rise to high office. The viziers in the Ottoman Empire were slaves. Free men are known to have sold themselves into slavery to become public slaves in the Roman Empire, because this gave them power over their cities’ treasuries. In early medieval Germany under the Ottonian dynasty, crown lands were administered by a class of royal servants called ‘ministeriales’. Although their status as slaves has been called into question, they were nevertheless unfree servants held by the Crown. These men held immense power, and when freed, were knighted to join the ranks of Germany chivalry. Similarly, in African slave states such as Calabar, kings frequently found their slaves far more trustworthy than their own sons, and so frequently bequeathed their kingdom to them rather than their sons on their deaths.

2. Slavery is the result of the forcible capture and sale of people against their will, or else of people, who have been born into it through their parents being slaves.

Again, the above describes how historically the majority of people fell into slavery. Not all slaves or serfs were the victims of capture or were born into it, however. In the ancient world, and the early Middle Ages, many people, apparently of their own free will, sold themselves into servitude as a way of saving themselves and their families from starvation. Their land and their lives would no longer be there own, but their lord was obliged to feed and protect them. Similarly, people generally sign on for unemployment benefit and so pass into workfare in order to avoid poverty and starvation.

3. Slavery and related forms of servitude, such as serfdom, were the products of pre-modern, agricultural societies. They therefore cannot and do not exist in developed, industrial nations.

Medieval serfdom and transatlantic slavery certainly were based in agriculture. This does not mean that they were not also linked to what could be described as a capitalist, market economy. The growth of villeinage in medieval Europe and in Europe east of the Elbe in the 16th and 17th century was based on the cultivation of wheat in a market economy, rather than simply to support the villagers themselves. Similarly, transatlantic plantation slavery arose to provide the labour to cultivate the similarly highly profitable cash crops of sugar, tobacco and cotton. Slavery and serfdom could thus certainly be part of a modern, capitalist economy.

It is also manifestly untrue that slavery is purely agricultural, and has not and cannot be used in industrial society. Peter the Great in Russia began his nation’s industrialisation using serf labour. The first industrial metal furnaces were set up when he draft about 200 or so serfs to work in them. In the 20th century, the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia both used slave labour from the concentration camps, gulags and P.O.W. camps to build massive industrial plants and complexes. There’s a chilling passage in the book Black Snow: Russia after the Fall of Communism where the American author interviews a former KGB responsible for running one of the gulags – the political slave labour camps in Siberia. Living in his luxury apartment in Moscow, the man confesses that most of the inmates were completely innocent. He is, however, completely unrepentant, telling the author that they needed to use slave labour in order to industrialise the country. Without it, the great Soviet heavy industrial complexes would simply not be built. Even when the prisoners were released from the gulags and technically free, their freedom was extremely limited. Other employers would not take them on because they were still considered to have been traitors and political criminals. The result was that they remained tied to the towns and working in the same factories and furnaces that the gulags served, long after they were formally free men and women. These cities were themselves closed to outsiders. There were thus cities with populations of hundreds of thousands that were, in origin and in practice, vast prisons. Osborne’s, IDS’ and McVey’s workfare similarly serves as the basis for what remains of British industry, however much they may disguise it.

4. Slavery and serfdom are for life, although in most societies manumission – the freeing of a slave by their masters – was a possibility. Workfare is not intended to last for life, and in fact is deliberately arranged so that the individual on it will eventually leave it for better, paid employment.

Again, this point does not necessarily mean that workfare does not constitute a form of slavery. Most slaves in the ancient world at one time were freed before they were forty, in order for their masters to avoid the cost of paying for their upkeep in their frail old age. When the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, now New York, in the 17th and 18th century, slavery then was only intended to last 25 years. If the slave was able to live that long, then he or she was automatically free.

Workfare and Feudal Forced Labour

There is a closer similarity between workfare and some forms of forced labour, than the state of slavery per se. In many feudal societies in Europe and around the globe, the peasants are forced to provide customary unpaid work on behalf of their masters at certain times in the year. This was a feature of villeinage in Europe. The corvee remained a feature of French peasant servitude until it was abolished during the Revolution. Similar forms of collective, unpaid forced labour were also used in Fijian society, and in ancient Egypt. While not necessarily a form of literal slavery, such forced labour is still now considered an illegal form of servitude and in that sense classed as it.

Workfare and Roman Colliberti

Contemporary workfare could also be compared to the status of the colliberti – the freedmen – in the ancient world. These were men, who had been freed by their masters. They were technically freemen, and were frequently extremely rich, due to their employment and membership of vital industries, like fulling, that were below the dignity of free Roman citizens. They could not, however, hold political office, although this was possible for their children. They were also dependent on their patrons for legal protection, although this relationship did not exist in law. The rank of collibertus in Roman society, with its dependence on the patronage of one’s master, that eventually formed one of the roots of medieval serfdom. Similarly under workfare, the jobseeker is technically free, but in fact reliant and under the direction of the decision makers and clerks in the Job Centre.

5. In slavery, the power of the slave’s master is absolute. Under workfare, however, the jobseeker still possesses full legal protection. Moreover, workfare is in theory contractual. The jobseeker signs a formal agreement at the Job Centre, which binds him and the state into a particular relationship, each with obligations. This is completely unlike slavery.

This argument too is invalid. Many societies had laws limiting and protecting slaves and serfs from abuse. The medieval villeins were protected under feudal law in Britain. Spanish medieval law contains provisions protecting slaves. In the early 19th century prior to abolition, Britain attempted to ameliorate the condition of slaves in its colonies by passing laws stipulating the amount of rations they were to be fed, and limiting the number of lashes masters could inflict on their slaves as punishment. These were based on the Spanish slave code. The British also set up an official, the Guardian and Protector of Slaves, based on the Spanish alcalde, whose job was to protect slaves from abuse by their masters. These had the power to investigate allegations of abuse made by the slaves themselves. Beating and cruelty would result in the slave’s being compulsorily sold to another master. The murder of a slave was punished with the death penalty. The Islamic shariah similarly limits the punishment a slave may receive for particular crimes. Where the punishment for an offence is whipping, the number of lashes is frequently less for a slave than for a free man. He may also wear some kind of shirt instead of his bare back to protect him. These legal protections for slaves do not mean that slavery as an institution did not exist, or prevent it from being degrading.

As for workfare being contractual, and thus not a form of servitude, this is also false. Feudalism was also based on a contract between the lord and peasant. Under the contract, the peasant gave his life, land and labour, while the lord was obliged to protect him. Similarly, modern forms of slavery, such as bonded labour in Brazil, are frequently disguised as legal employment under a long contract.

It is therefore clear that the formal legal freedoms, which still exist at the moment for job seekers under workfare, are nevertheless comparable to other forms of slavery and servitude, which contain some elements of freedom, legal protection and even political power. Workfare can still therefore be reasonably compared with some forms of servitude and force labour, at least in the forms under which George Osborne plans to expand it.

Fascism and the Liberal Party

October 3, 2013

Yesterday I blogged about how Maggie Thatcher had a Panorama documentary spiked because it threatened to reveal that the Conservative party had been infiltrated by the National Front. Thus the programme, ‘Maggie’s Militant Tendency’ was never aired. I also mentioned how various Marxist sects have tried over the years to infiltrate and seize power in the Labour Party.

So that’s two of this country’s three main political parties. What about the third?

Well, we can’t leave the Libdems out of the party, can we?

In the 1980s there was also a scandal in West Germany, when it was revealed that the German Liberals, the Freie Demokraten, had been infiltrated by the Neo-Nazis. The fact that the Nazis would choose to infiltrate the Liberals, rather than the Conservative Christian Democrats doesn’t surprise me. The Nazis saw themselves as neither capitalist nor socialist. They believed they constituted a ‘third way’ in which capitalist industry was harnessed so that it acted ‘socially’. One of their slogans was, ‘Not Left, Not Right, But Forwards!’. As a party that was neither socialist nor Conservative, the Liberals therefore represented an ideologically suitable target for infiltration by the extreme Right. Not that the Christian Democrats in Germany also haven’t suffered similar scandals with revelations of the Nazi past of some of their MPs, such as that which broke out over some of the ‘Northern Lights’, a group of Christian Democrat delegates from the north of Germany, around Schleswig-Holstein. I can also remember reading in one of the Fabian pamphlets how one of the horrific monetarist dictatorships in Central America was actually a member of the world Liberal political grouping, rather than a Conservative political bloc.

I would be tempting, looking at the international Fascist connections to the Liberals, to conclude that this was the reason the party of John Stuart Mill and anti-Apartheid activists has now supported Cameron’s illiberal ‘war on the poor’ and supported profoundly anti-democratic and authoritarian measures such as secret courts. But I simply don’t believe that’s the case.

I think the simple answer is the personal background of Clegg himself, and the corrosive influence of the Chicago School. Clegg is an aristocrat and an ex-public schoolboy. By upbringing he views the lower middle and working classes as drones, who are only there to serve their masters in the haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy. And after Maggie Thatcher’s repeated electoral victories and her espousal of a strong state, the ‘Orange Book’ faction in the Libdems simply took over her economic libertarianism and elitist, militaristic authoritarianism. Neo-Liberalism claims to be a revival of classical economic liberalism. Clegg and his coterie took over this ideology, without paying attention to the fact that classical liberalism had been discredited de facto as the 19th century progressed. Despite the claims of laissez-faire, in fact the 19th century gradually saw the expansion of state regulation and interference. The New Liberalism of the 1880 with its basis in Hegelian collectivism was an attempt to provide an ideological justification for what was already in progress, rather than its beginning. All this, however, was forgotten.

And so we now have a supposedly moderate, centre party, supporting one of the most repressive, oppressive Right-wing regimes in modern British history, and the party of middle class aspiration and Lloyd George’s Limehouse Speech has become the supine accomplice to aristocratic government.

The Daily Mail and Milliband: Proof You Can Tell He’s Doing Something Right

October 2, 2013

The Daily Mail’s attack on Milliband’s father suggests that the leader of the Labour party must really have them rattled. They can’t, it seem, be content to attack the man’s policies, but have to launch an ad hominem attack, not just on the man, but on his father. Ralph Milliband died in 1994, and so can’t answer back, nor sue for libel. As Milliband said in his right-to-reply piece, reproduced on Kittysjones’ blog, ‘You can’t libel the dead, but you can smear them’. Now Ralph Milliband was a distinguished Marxist intellectual, and this intellectual legacy appears to threaten the Conservatives, even if his sons, as members of New Labour, don’t share his views.

Milliband states that the Mail’s article is purely based on a single entry his father made in his diary when he was an adolescent. I can well believe this. From what I understand about the experience of Jewish immigrants to Britain of Milliband’s senior generation, rather than hating Britain, many of them were extremely patriotic. The office of ‘Chief Rabbi of the British Empire’ in British Judaism was modelled on the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury as head of the Anglican Church. The motto of the Jewish equivalent of the Boy Scouts was ‘to be a good Jew and a good Englishman’. One of the paintings by the 20th century avant-garde artist, David Bomberg, shows the interior of a Jewish bath house. The colours used are red, white and blue, those of the Union flag. I have the impression, though I’m no art historian and know next to nothing about Bomberg, that this was a genuine expression of his love for his country.

What many European emigres didn’t like about Britain was its anti-intellectualism and ‘boy’s club’ atmosphere. Many of them were extremely highly educated and cultured men and women, and they disliked the philistinism they found in British society. Those raised in the Continental intellectual culture, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, have often commented on its comparative absence over this side of La Manche. One British Jewish intellectual, Steiner, compared Britain with France. In France, he said, they’d fight duels over disagreements about Hegel. In Britain the attitude is simply, ‘Oh, don’t be so silly’. I think Steiner liked the British attitude as showing far more common sense, while being aware of just how hostile British culture could be to intellectual debate. The Daily Mail, however, has over the years done its level best to keep this tradition of fierce anti-intellectualism going. Way back in the 1990s Paul Johnson, one of the Mail’s columnists, wrote a book Intellectuals. This took a number of leading intellectual figures, such as Karl Marx, Kenneth Tynan, Hans Christian Andersen and so on, and examined not their ideas, but their own personal lives. Most of them were shown to fall far below the standards of correct behaviour and bourgeois decorum demanded by the Daily Mail. As did Johnson himself, who all the while he was pontificating on British moral decline and the evils of today’s lax sexual behaviour was regularly getting a good spanking by his mistress. Private Eye wrote a mock hagiography for him in their ‘Lives of the Saints’ column, in which the great man said to his mistress ‘You must spank me on the botty and show me no mercy!’ Now it’s pretty true that many great men had feet of clay, and some of them were pretty horrible human beings. As Private Eye pointed out in its review of Johnson’s book, the shoddiness of their private lives no more invalidates their work than the second-best bed negates the beauty and value of Hamlet.

And some of the pieces written by the Daily Mail’s writers over the years are bizarre, if not absolutely bonkers. JUlie Burchill once wrote a piece in the Mail of Sunday, which, through several turns of highly convoluted, and indeed, sheer lapses of logic, attacking the sincere anti-Fascists, like Orwell and Steven Spender, who went to Spain to fight Franco in the Civil War. They were not motivated by heroism and the desire to see a Europe free of Fascist tyranny, according to Burchill. No, they were just like the tourists, who go to Spain to watch the bullfights. Burchill has said of her writing before now that she starts with a drink in front of her, which by the time she’s finished is all gone. She has also boasted of taking enough cocaine to stun the Colombian army. Reading pieces like that, I believe her. As for attacking the anti-Fascist veterans of the Civil War, this raises once again the spectre of Conservative hypocrisy. Orwell in one of his articles described how the Stock Exchanged cheered General Franco when he launched his revolt against the Republic. The leader of the National Front in the 1960s, Fountaine, was a former Tory, who had fought for Franco during the Civil War. he was thrown out of the Conservative party after making anti-Semitic comments about Jewish influence at one of the party’s meetings. He wasn’t the only Tory to admire the Spanish dictator. Martin Pugh in his book on British Fascism between the wars also notes that Winston Churchill also admired him for his authoritarian leadership. Churchill was certainly not an anti-Semite, but his opposition to Nazi Germany came from a conviction that a strong, militarised Reich threatened the British Empire, not from an opposition to Fascism per se. Hence Orwell’s comment in another of his articles that the run-up to Second World War hade produced some truly remarkable turns of events, ‘such as Winston Churchill running around pretending to be a democrat’. In the Tory party, Anthony Eden was a much stronger, and far more determined opponent of Fascism.

As for Paul Johnson, he himself is also capable of making bizarre, distorted attacks on the character of great men. A decade ago now he attack the great Russian novelist, Tolstoy, in the pages of the Spectator, for being responsible for the rise of Stalin. This is such a gross distortion of Tolstoy’s views and character that, as with Burchill, you wonder if he was drunk or on drugs when he wrote it. Tolstoy was a communist, who believed in the collective ownership of property. He was not, however, a Marxist, but Christian, as well as a vegetarian, pacifist anarchist. Unlike Marxism, which holds that society is formed and progresses through inexorable social and economic laws, Tolstoy believed that history was made not through impersonal processes, but through the actions of millions of individual people. He expressed his distinctive view of history as formed by countless individuals, rather than the actions of great men, in his masterpiece, War and Peace. He got his idea on passive resistance from the tactics used by a Chechen Sufi leader, who was captured and exiled to Russia after the Russian invaded his country. Tolstoy himself wrote pamphlets denouncing violence, and in turn influenced Gandhis own conception of the Hindu doctrine of ahimsa – nonviolence. As an anarchist, he also hated the state for its violence and oppression. In contrast to Stalin, who demanded absolute devotion, constituting a form of secular worship, Tolstoy himself lived simply. Despite being a member of the aristocracy, he wore a peasant’s smock and taught himself their skills, such as sewing boots. There is absolutely no comparison whatsoever between Tolstoy and Stalin, and the great novelist would have been repelled and revolted by everything Stalin stood for.

The vicious, mean-spirited attack on Ralph Milliband is just another demonstration of the Heil’s abysmally low standards of journalism: bizarre, ad hominem rants with little basis, or even concern, for factual accuracy.

Now both Pride’s Purge and Kittysjones have written excellent pieces, which I’ve reblogged, on how the Mail supported Mosley and Hitler. In fairness to the Daily Mail, they did run pieces critical of him after his organisation’s intolerance and thuggery became very clear. Nevertheless, there still remained some respect for the man even after he had been discredit and revealed as an anti-Semite and would-be fuhrer. One of his biographers, Skidelsky, maintained that Mosley was not actually anti-Semitic, and only became so after he encountered opposition from the Jewish organisations. skidelsky points out that Mosley’s notorious ‘biff boys’, the uniformed stewards at his rallies, were trained by the Jewish boxer, Ted Lewis. According to Skidelsky, Mosley was far more influenced by Mussolini than Hitler. This view has now been rejected by later historians. Martin Pugh points out that Mosley’s BUF contained a large number of anti-semites, and that Mosley quickly turned to Hitler and the Nazis when Mussolini’s leadership of international Fascism began to wane. After Hitler’s seizure of power, Mosley changed the BUF’s name to ‘the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists’. Mosley was indeed a Nazi, and so shares their guilt for the horrors they committed.

This has, however, only been recognised very recently. When Mosley died, the newspapers all printed sympathetic, even glowing obituaries. The BBC’s satirical sketch show, Not The Nine O’clock News sent this up at the time in their song about him. If you listen to it right to the end, you’ll find that the point of the satire isn’t so much Mosley himself, but the fact that the newspapers all wrote obituaries praising him. Here it is:

Alan Moore on ‘V for Vendetta’

September 28, 2013

Mike over on Vox Political is, if you hadn’t already guessed, a long term comics fan. He’s blogged several times on the very disturbing parallels between the current financial crisis and the authoritarian, exploitative Coalition government, and the Fascist Britain portrayed in his graphic novel, V for Vendetta. I found the video below on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QX7ehbE1vc0. It was originally broadcast on either BBC 3 or 4 in their documentary series, Comics Britannia. Moore here talks about how it came out of his activities with Rock against Racism, and states that like a lot of Science Fiction it was really about what is happening now, not the future. He makes very plain his anarchism and antipathy to leaders. He also says that he wanted to explore the morality of violence and states that he did not want to write it so that because he, Moore, was an Anarchist, it was therefore all right for the Anarchist hero to use violence.

He also wanted to portray the Fascists in the novel as ordinary people, some of whom may even have been likable. The Nazis, he points out, were not monsters from space and did not suddenly arrive from the pit of hell. This is, unfortunately, entirely accurate. Hannah Arendt in her description of the trial of Adolf Eichmann talked about the ‘banality of evil’. Primo Levi, the noted Italian author and holocaust survivor, said of the concentration camp guards that they were no different from the rest of humanity. In his words, ‘they had our faces’. Moore points out that the Nazis included the butchers, teachers and street-sweepers, many whom simply went along with what was going on, or they believed in the ideology. It’s a point which needs to be made. There’s a lot of complete rubbish written about Nazi Germany. Since the book The Morning of the Magicians appeared in the 1960s there has been a slew of books portraying Hitler as a literally demonic force, an evil black magician in touch with malign occult entities. He wasn’t. The Nazis were a product of the racial, geopolitical and eugenic theories then current in Europe and America at the time. There were brought to power by the financial collapse of 1929, the political disintegration and factionalism of the Weimar Republic, and the fear of global Communism and Soviet totalitarianism, although this last has been disputed by some historians. Hitler had read and taken some of his ideas about evolution from the pamphlets produced by the leaders of bizarre, Neo-pagan groups, like Lanz Von Liebenfels and Guido Von List. Their ultimate influence on Nazism was minimal and they were suppressed under Nazis. Some of their ideas survived in Himmler’s SS. For a proper understanding of this aspect of Nazism, see The Occult Roots of Nazism, by Nicholas Goodrick Clarke (London: I.B. Tauris & Co, 1992).

The most horrific aspect of the Nazis and other totalitarian butchers is that they were not literal demons or crazed alien machine creatures, like Dr. Who’s Daleks, but ordinary people. That needs to be accepted if we really wish to understand the immense evil they did as part of the dark side of the human psyche.

This is Alan Moore, talking about his work on V for Vendetta.