The Relations of Force: Politics and Power in Britain Today

All politics is about building coalitions and building power: if Labour cannot understand this truth and grasp its implications, then it is doomed. 

A quick preface

This was written as a short contribution to a Pluto Press book that was supposed to be published last year,  but never finally happened. I think it’s still pretty relevant to everything so I’m posting it now.

(If you’re one of the several people who are waiting for me to finish writing something – don’t worry – I did this ages ago…it hasn’t been distracting me from what I was supposed to be writing for you)

My aim in this short essay is to explain how a particular way of understanding politics and social change can illuminate our current situation. But first a disclaimer. I won’t be  saying anything new here. The ideas I will be using are very familiar to those who are trained in a particular intellectual tradition. I present them here because they remain invaluable and useful, and because lots of people have had  no access to that tradition; but not because I claim any originality for them.

I am going to be explaining in very basic terms how an approach derived from the ideas of the great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, who died in ta fascist prison in the late 1930s, can help us understand current British politics. It seems particularly appropriate to to do this right now, because the past month has seen the launch of Stuart Hall’s Selected Political Writings [https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/stuart-hall-event]. Hall was one of the giant’s of British public and intellectual life of recent decades (https://www.opendemocracy.net/author/stuart-hall; https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/jeremy-gilbert/tribute-to-stuart-hall). One of Hall’s great contributions to British intellectual culture was to bring to Gramsci’s ideas to on the analysis of British politics, in a number of key essays, several of which can be found in his key 1980s collection, The Hard Road to Renewal.

At the present time, Gramsci and his ideas seem to be undergoing yet another one of their periodic revivals, having been dismissed by many commentators as hopelessly outdated a few years ago. Many introductions to Gramsci are available,  but one of the best has been recently updates: Roger Simon’s Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction (https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/book/gramscis-political-thought). Many scholarly expositions of Gramsci’s work have been produced, but Peter Thomas’ The Gramscian Moment (2009) set a new benchmark in English-language scholarship. I don’t know much about the state of Gramsci scholarship outside the English-speaking world, but I do know that the popular French radio show and podcast Les Chemins de La Philosophie (https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/les-chemins-de-la-philosophie) recently produced an episode on Gramsci simply because he is so widely cited by so many people. Radical publishers Verso have just published  a historical study of Gramsci’s key concept – ‘hegemony’ (if you don’t know what this means don’t worry, I will explain in simple terms shortly) – by one of its most prominent writers, Perry Anderson. In fact Alex Williams and I are currently writing a book for the same publishers on the subject of hegemony in the 21st century, which due to be completed before the summer. (We are considering presenting initial arguments in a series of public seminars and videos, so if you think you might be interested in that then do follow us at @lemonbloodycola and @jemgilbert).

Here it is

My Friend Mark

Here are two versions of basically the same tribute to my departed friend Mark Fisher, who took his own life in January.

There are two versions, a very long and a quite long one.

The first is my own very very long tribute.  It is as much as anything about me and my thoughts, obviously – as it is basically a kind of intellectual history of Marks’ own conceptual journey and my personal and political relationship to it. If you have been dying to find out exactly what I thought of the CCRU in the early 2000s, then this is for you. If not then maybe don’t bother. To be fair if you are interested in a very detailed account of Mark’s intellectual and political development then I think , I hope, you will find this genuinely useful.

Here it is in a pdf: My Friend Mark

The second is a rather shorter edited version, which is posted along with a number of other tributes on the LARB website HERE

The eulogies from Mark’s memorial service (including an Acid Communist translation of the Internationale) are HERE

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Free Course! Introduction to Cultural Studies: Culture, Technology & Power

From February to June this year, I’ll be teaching on a free fortnightly course at Open School East in Dalston which will be be covering a number of key issues in contemporary cultural politics – race, gender, sexuality, technology, neoliberalism, music, money, the future, etc. I’ll be taking most of the sessions – Stephen Maddison will do the one on queer politics.
Anyone is welcome and it  should be very interesting.
These lectures / seminar are technically the second part of a free course titled ‘Introduction to Cultural Studies: Culture, Technology & Power’, but they should be accessible and interesting whether you are completely new to these things, or an advanced cultural theory postgrad, or anything in between. Please do pass on to anyone who might be interested.
For more details about the course, the context, etc. see HERE and HERE
The information about what, where and when is below:

Where and how to get there ?

Open School East
The Rose Lipman Building
43 De Beauvoir Rd
London N1 5SQ

View Map

Buses: 67, 149, 243 (Haggerston Station) & 21, 76, 141 (Downham Road)
Overground: Haggerston

(Open School East is fully wheelchair accessible)

What and When?

Every other Tuesday (normally – see dates below), Feb 23rd – June 14th 2016

6:30pm -8:30pm

Just turn up no booking required

(then drinks round the corner at Brilliant Corners!)

Dates and Topics 

Tuesday February 23 2016

We are all migrants

‘Some bunch of migrants’ is what David Cameron called the refugee inhabitants of the Calais ‘jungle’ when Jeremy Corbyn went to visit them. But migration and movement of people has shaped every aspect of our lives and culture, from the forced migrations of the slave trade to the take-away menus on our high street. With the EU referendum just around the corner, and anti-immigration feeling running high in the UK, what hope is there for a progressive cosmopolitan politics today? 

Tuesday March 8th 

Computer World  

‘Computer World’ is the title of Kraftwerk’s best album (yes it is). At just around the time they recorded it, economists, philosophers and social theorists were predicting that the ‘computerisation’ of society would change everything, creating a world of infinite information, without stable values, in which the very idea of being ‘modern’ would come to seem out of date.  Were they right? The technological changes of the past few decades have radically changed how capitalism works – but is it still fundamentally the same old system?

Tuesday March 15th  (NB this is only one week after the last session)

No Such Thing As ‘Society’

“There’s no such thing as society: only individuals (and their families)”. This was perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s most notorious public pronouncement. It was also one of the few moments when she made explicit her commitment to the ideals and assumptions of ‘neoliberalism’: the individualistic political philosophy that has come to dominate our politics, our culture and our lives. 

After the 2008 crash, and the rise of Corbynism, we’re hearing a lot of discussion these days about the problems with neoliberal economics, which basically wants to privatise everything, drive down wages and cut taxes for the rich. We don’t hear so much about neoliberalism as a cultural ideology, promoting individualism, competition and greed in every area of life, from the nursery to the hospice. But without understanding this, we can’t understand how  ruling elites have got away with imposing such an unpopular programme for so long. 

We’ll have a think about this here – and take the opportunity to revise a bit of Marx, Gramsci and Foucault. 

Easter break 

Tuesday April 5th 

This is what a feminist looks like 

If historians of the future remember our era for anything, it is probably going to be the unprecedented revolution in the social status of women that we have lived through, and are living through.  But the movement which made that change possible is still derided and feared, often seemingly unpopular with the very generations of young women who have benefited from it. At the same time it has raised a question which cultural and social theory is still struggling to answer – what is gender? Is it a social construct or a biological fact, or both, or neither? What does it mean to be a feminist today? Where does masculinity fit into all this? What are ‘performativity’ and ‘intersectionality’ when they’re at home? We will sort all this out in time to get to the pub before 9, honest…

Tuesday April 19th

Queer as Folk

Another huge cultural and political change of recent years has been the transformation in social attitudes towards same-sex relationships. It’s hard to believe now that both advocates and opponents of ‘gay liberation’ once thought that capitalism itself simply could not tolerate open same-sex relationships, and would be fatally undermined by any attempt to validate them. At the same time sexuality remains a highly charged political issue in many complex ways, and the broad field of ‘queer theory’ has been one of the most productive and contentious areas of cultural studies. 

Tuesday May 3rd

The Multitude, the Metropolis (and the Mayor)

Since around 2000, there’s been growing interest in the English-speaking world in a particular strain of radical Italian thought. This ‘autonomist’ tradition believes in the creative, dynamic capacities of workers of all kinds, from factory workers to software engineers, and wants to liberate the creative power of ‘the multitude’ from capitalist control. Thinkers such as Hardt & Negri and Lazzarato offer very interesting ways of thinking about the rise of the ‘creative economy’, about how social media platforms generate profits from our everyday communications, and about why cities are so often hotbeds of radicalism and innovation. Two days before the London Mayoral election, we’ll also think about what potential there might be for Londoners to take back our own city from the clutches of the oligarchs and the Corporation of London.

Tuesday May 17th  

Can you Feel it?

 Once upon a time, Cultural Studies was basically about looking at everything as if it were a language: fashion, advertising, music and journalism were understood as different ways in which people ‘make meanings’. A lot of cultural studies still is like that – it’s a very useful and productive way of looking at things. But what about those aspects of our lives which are not easy to translate into ‘meanings’?  What about feelings? What about the sounds of music, the colours of paintings, the physical thrill of watching a movie? These issues aren’t just important for thinking about art and music – they’re also crucial to understanding what motivates people politically and socially. We’ll  explore these issues and try to get inside one of the most difficult but rewarding bodies of 20th century theory: the ‘schizoanalysis’ of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

Tuesday May 31st 

How did we get here?  

How did we get into this mess? Rising inequality, climate catastrophe, miserable youth and a culture which can’t innovate: it’s hard to believe that until some time in the 80s, people actually believed the world was getting better.  Can Cultural Studies help us to understand how we got here? It can and it will.

In this session we’ll bring together many of the ideas from the previous weeks, and the previous term, to see how they can help answer this questions. We’ll be looking at some classic Cultural Studies text such as Sturt Hall et. al’s Policing the Crisis published in 1978 (which starts off analysing newspaper reports about muggings, and ends up basically predicting Thatcherism before anyone else could see it coming), and asking if culture in 2016 is still stuck in ‘the long 1990s’. 

Tuesday June 14th 

Where are we going?

What kind of world are we heading into, and who gets to decide? Will artificially-intelligent robots be our masters? Will we be cyborgs ourselves? Are we already? What will happen to us once Chinese workers start demanding decent wages for making all the stuff we buy? Can the planet tolerate the levels of consumption we’ve got used to? Will technology save us or destroy us.? Are we already experiencing ‘post-capitalism’?  Are we already ‘post-human’? All this and more will be revealed. 

The Long 90s is Over

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Capitalism, Culture and the Media conference at the University of Leeds last week.

It touches on some themes discussed in a bit more detail in this lecture I gave at Open School East earlier in the summer.

I will write this up into a proper article and get more into the stuff around the global historic bloc of Big Tech and Finance Capital (Wall St + Silicon Valley) when I get around to it. For now I thought I’d better put this online because people like the excellent Aditya  are starting to quote me on the long ’90s thing…

‘Neoliberalism’ and ‘Capitalism’ – what’s the difference?

I wrote this in response to a discussion  of this theme on the NEON list. Thinking it was both too long for an email list and might be a useful resource for some people, I posted it here…
What’s the difference between ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘capitalism’ 
I think that neoliberalism and capitalism are simply different types of thing. Continue reading