The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, February 17, 2020



The Sage of Freuchie

Tom Nairn: 'Painting Nationalism Red'?
Neal Ascherson
Democratic Left Scotland, n.d. (2018)


This is an odd pamphlet which is well worth getting. Some day it'll be a collector's item. It's well-produced on glossy paper, with a striking cover and, inside, a fine reproduction of the portrait whose gift and sitter the pamphlet celebrates. In these pages three big names meet: the author Neal Ascherson, the subject Tom Nairn, and the painter, Sandy Moffat.

It has already been reviewed, briefly and enthusiastically by Davie Laing, and lengthily and discursively by Rory Scothorne. There's no need for me to review it here, inevitable quibbles though I may have – I can only recommend it, as a small piece of history, and a useful summary of an argument that is still influencing that history.

The title, apt as the pun on 'painting' no doubt was for the occasion, does less than justice to the content: a concise intellectual biography of Nairn by the journalist who did a great deal to make his ideas part of common sense. Ascherson saw Scotland in an international context provided by his own wide-ranging life; Nairn's intellectual formation was likewise cosmopolitan; and for both Scotland was key to dismantling the 'archaic' structures of the British state.


The pamphlet can be obtained by sending a cheque for £4 (10% discount for orders of 10 or more) to:

Democratic Left Scotland,
9 MacAulay Street, Dundee DD3 6JT

If the archaic structures of 'cheque' and 'post' are too constraining, you can always enquire of the publisher by telephony and the interwebs:

Telephone 07826 488492
Email stuartfairweather [at] ymail [dot] com
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Wednesday, February 12, 2020



Writers of a Better Nation?

The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, and Nation
Scott Hames
Edinburgh University Press, 2020

How well I remember Scotland in the 1980s! Scunnered by the failure of even a majority vote to establish a Scottish Assembly, snookered by the Cunningham Amendment, gubbed in the first round of the World Cup, gutted and filleted by Thatcherism, disillusioned by repeatedly voting Labour and getting Tory ... only the writers and artists remained standing, to produce a body of self-confident work that firmly established the nation on the global cultural map. Together with dedicated political and civic activists they in due course lifted its spirits to the heights of gaining its own Parliament. They accomplished a devolution – or independence -- of the mind and heart, well in advance of its political achievement.

I remember it like this, of course, because I wasn't there. I was in London, reading all about it in the columns of Neal Ascherson and the volumes of Tom Nairn. Now and again I'd browse a journal or pamphlet from the Scottish literary or political edge. Scotland from afar seemed to have a more democratic, more socialist and more egalitarian spirit than England – particularly the South- East of England – and this consciousness showed through in the culture it had inherited as much as in the culture it now produced. And since I moved back in the early 1990s, the same story has become received wisdom, not least among writers and artists.

According to Scott Hames's new book, the real story is a bit more complicated than that. So much more complicated, indeed, that it's hard to summarise. If he's missed a magazine, a literary feud, a Commission or a Report, it's not for want of looking. The discussion is sometimes dry, the narrative always engaging. The savagery of the spats he disinters from the archival peat-bog is eye-opening. Hames contrasts 'The Dream' of literary nationalism with 'The Grind' of political procedure (characterised in this case more by friction than motion). Two features stand out, all the more because in retrospect they're often overlooked. The first is how radical an aim devolution seemed, and how bright it shone in the literary imagination. The second is how conservative – how conserving -- a manoeuvre its implementation was, driven far more by the need of the British state and the Labour Party to 'manage national feeling' than by the SNP, whose votes were read as fever-chart symptom rather than political challenge.

In focusing on the cultural and the political, Hames avowedly and explicitly omits the economic and the social. This is fair enough in its own terms, but it's liable to leave the reader's inner vulgar Marxist – if they, like me, they have one -- sputtering. The oversight, if we can call it that, is overcompensated in the novel whose analysis gets a chapter to itself: James Robertson's And the Land Lay Still. It's the most ambitious Scottish realist novel for decades, grand in scale and scope and an immersive read. Ranging from the late 1940s to the early 21st Century, the novel interweaves family sagas and stories of personal individuation with political and parapolitical history to tell one overarching epic: the growth of national consciousness.

And therein lies one problem with it. It's as if at the back of every honest, decent Scot's mind is a relentless yammer of 'You Yes Yet?' Older generations are permitted to die in the old dispensation, shriven by their invincible ignorance, but those who live in the light of the new have no excuse. If they step off the path to nationhood they sink in the slough of self-loathing – as the two major pro-Union characters, an alcoholic police spy and a Tory MP undone by a secret fetish, in the end do.

Robertson conducts a large and varied cast through a long time and a complex plot with great skill to a most satisfactory click of closure. But, Hames argues, the difficulty of integrating the characters' lives with a political history that mostly consisted of tiny conventicles and ceilidhs in literally smoke-filled rooms and debates in widely unread periodicals, and that now and then took public form as 'set-piece' events in parliaments and streets, can defeat even the best novelist – even though Robertson was himself on those marches and in those rooms. It's a problem familiar in science fiction: one reviewer cited refers to Robertson's 'info-dumping', a term from the lexicon of SF criticism.

Hames's final chapters deal with Scots, the language, in relation to Scots, the people – and 'people' too is ambiguous, referring as it can to the nation as a whole or to 'the people' as opposed to the elite. Here Scots is an abrasion almost as raw as Gaelic, and more widely felt. At the risk of rubbing it, here's how it went. Centuries ago, Scots was an official language, known as Inglis. It was used at Court and in courts, in poetry and prose. For readers outwith Scotland, you wrote in Latin like any other literate European. After the Union of the Crowns and the Treaty of Union, the United Kingdom conquered a third of the world, and English replaced Latin as the de facto lingua franca. Scots was pushed out of administrative, then everyday upper-and-middle-class speech. Its several dialects became the language of the working poor of town and country. (Except in the Highlands, where the people were schooled and regimented straight from Gaelic into Standard English, which of course they spoke in their own distinct way.)

In the first Scottish literary renaissance, MacDiarmid and others sought to revive Scots as a national language, which they called Lallans or (because of the fusion of Scots dialects) 'Synthetic Scots'. This produced some great poems, but in polemic and reportage it can come across as as affectation. Fights between the Lallans-scrievin old guard and the younger, more outward-facing literary intelligentsia flared in the 1960s and 1970s. But some new writers found another aspect of the language question, and one that far from being esoteric was central to everyday life, at least in the Central Belt. Modern vernacular Scots is different enough even from Scottish Standard English to separate the home and the school, the working class and the middle class. That difference could literally hurt, could smart and bruise, from the classroom tawse and the playground clout. At the same time, and very much as part of what Nairn excoriated as the conservative 'tartanry' of the proud Scot, the Scots language appeared in print as a quaint rustic dialect, in English spelling spattered with apostrophes, from Burns Night to the Broons patronised to within an inch of its life.

Now here I do remember personally, from the 1970s. Seeing for the first time urban West of Scotland demotic speech rendered phonetically in print, in Lament for a Lost Dinner Ticket by Margaret Hamilton, and 'Six Glasgow Poems' in Tom Leonard's Poems (1973), was a mental liberation. Almost as much, for me, as seeing for the first time Highland English dialogue accurately conveyed, in the children's novels of Allan Campbell McLean. The release came from not being patronised or mocked. Only that!

Not a lot to ask, you might think, but this modest request was seldom met with comprehension, let alone satisfaction. As an issue with which to elide class hurt with national grievance, it packed a wallop. But only, or mainly, on the individual level. In a country and at a time where upward social mobility is closely connected with further education and a change in language, the typical agonies of the intellectual of working-class origin growing away from their roots and the socialist of middle-class origin separated by accent and vocabulary from the class they most wish to speak to (or, problematically, for) are widespread enough to make these private pains a social force.

Scotland's peculiar development, however, has meant that Scots has very little chance of becoming the national language. Stranger things have happened, but... Naw. More likely, and well under way, is its official celebration as one of several languages spoken in Scotland. This provides gainful employment to some, and bewilderment to schoolchildren who speak what they think is English, but which they are now taught (in English) is another language, Scots.

As Hames suggests, this linguistic and social devolution within the devolved polity serves to defuse any class and national charge that spoken Scots still has, and offers its speakers symbolic representation in the place of – or at least, quite independently of – any actual power. The identity politics of a section of the working class is assimilated to the identity politics of the nation, to which its characteristic manner of speech is supposed to lend authentic voice. What this contributes to the material condition, let alone the social and political self-confidence, of the working class within Scotland is another matter entirely. All those years after Trainspotting, it's still shite being Scottish.

Like the devolution settlement as a whole, this uneasy arrangement leaves a lot of unfinished business. Looking back on the Scottish 1980s that I saw only from a safe distance, I have a wry suspicion that somebody was running a Gramscian strategy through those smoke-filled rooms. That self-effacing Modern Prince has yet to have their share of glory. Be that as it may, the smoke-free Scotland of 2020 cries out for an analysis of likewise Gramscian canniness. Scott Hames's book is avowedly not it, but points towards that, and beyond to an unknown 'utopian' future wherein we speak for ourselves.
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Tuesday, January 07, 2020



Everybody knows

Lenin Lives!
Philip Cunliffe
Zero Books, 2016

It can be disconcerting to read a book that upends your way of looking at the world. It's even more disconcerting when that book claims your own work as part of its inspiration. About which, more later.

The book's title and Soviet-kitsch cover are deeply ironic: baiting for some, and bait for others. In the alternate-history world Cunliffe imagines, Lenin is almost forgotten, because he succeeded. (It's tempting to add 'beyond his wildest dreams' but success beyond Lenin's wildest dreams would have meant spreading the revolution to the canal-builders of Mars.)

For what Lenin and the Bolsheviks set out to do in 1917 was to detonate an international, indeed global, revolution. This was an immediate perspective, where revolutionary romanticism meant staking all on the world revolution breaking out next week, while sober realism meant bearing in mind that it might be delayed for a few more months. In fact even the realists were too optimistic: it was delayed for a whole year. In November 1918 the red flags went up over the naval base at Kiel, and flew over all Germany within days. And then...

Well, everybody knows.

But what if the grip of German Social Democratic reformism had been that little bit shakier, and the revolutionary Left that little bit better organised and luckier? Cunliffe speculates on what sort of world might now exist, and how it might have come about, if the revolution that began in Russia had not only spread – as it did – but won, as it didn't.

In this missed turn of history, a decade or so of wars and civil wars see the capitalist core countries having gone socialist. The major independent underdeveloped countries have gone democratic, and the former colonial holdings have mostly opted to remain in loose voluntary federations that have replaced the empires. It's not all plain sailing but the resulting democratic workers' states of Europe and America are much less repressive than Bolshevik, let alone Stalinist, Russia was in our world. Planning emerges from increasing coordination (as indeed it did under the New Economic Policy) rather central imposition. Industrialisation proceeds at a brisk but measured, rather than a frantic, pace. Art, science, culture and personal freedom flourish. This is a world with no fascism or Stalinism, no Depression and no Second World War. Whether or not the reader finds it feasible or desirable, it's attractively and vigorously portrayed.

Cunliffe's alternate history has no decisive moment (no Jonbar Point, to use the science-fictional term) that I can see. Instead, the international revolutionary working-class movement (which, as Cunliffe usefully and repeatedly reminds us) actually did exist at the time is imagined as having been just a little bit stronger in arm and clearer in mind than it was in our world. It's by no means an unrealistic speculation. Even in our world, it was a close-run thing. So close, in fact, that stamping out every last smouldering ember of world revolution took tens of years and tens of millions of lives. But its suppression is now, at last, complete.

E. H. Carr, in an article or interview for New Left Review, remarked that all of Marx's predictions had come true, except for the proletarian revolution. Cunliffe's view is gloomier: he thinks that they all came true, including the revolution. It really happened, in 1917-1923, and the revolutionaries bungled it.

When most readers of the Communist Manifesto encounter the passage about how throughout history classes have waged 'an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes' the example that springs to mind is the Fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarians. What Marx and Engels were really alluding to, Cunliffe argues, was subtly different: the Fall of the Republic, rather than the Fall of the Empire. It was the class struggles of patrician and plebeian in the Roman Republic that ended in mutual ruination, and stymied any chance of further progress centuries before the Empire fell.

If readers of the Manifesto are socialists, the common ruin they envisage for bourgeoisie and proletariat is a nuclear war or environmental catastrophe. No such luck, Cunliffe tells us: the common ruin has already happened. The class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is over. The good guys lost. Get over it.

But the non-socialist reader can take no comfort. The suppression of communism, Cunliffe claims, undermined capitalism, sapping its economic dynamism and political stability. With no competing model – however unattractive in many respects – to keep it on its toes, capitalism becomes a couch potato. With no union militancy and shop-floor organisation to contend with, capitalists have less incentive to innovate and rationalise. With no need to integrate the working class in the affairs of state, mass political participation and engagement have been texted their redundancy notices.

The result, however, is that the elites and the rest of the population are more mutually alienated than they ever were in the class struggle. To the political class and state authorities, the ideas and attitudes of the underlying multitude are as a dark continent, viewed with alarm and suspicion, alternately patronised and deplored. Unmoored from the clash of material interests, politics drifts into a Sargasso Sea of slowly, pointlessly, endlessly swirling debris. Debate degenerates into a grandstanding narcissism of small differences around an elite consensus dedicated solely to keeping the show on the road. Political apathy and populist eruptions are its morbid symptoms. The ruin was mutual, and the ruins are where we must henceforth live.

This exhausted order could in principle totter along indefinitely, were it not for the instabilities, internal and external, that result. The political and moral authority of the state quietly unravels, even as its hard power and reach expand. As Britain's riots of 2011 starkly exposed, social order itself can dissipate overnight. And the quest for moral authority at home is transmitted all too easily into rash adventuring abroad, in the name of democratic and liberal values. To explain, say, the Iraq war as motivated by strategic or economic concerns, a 'war for oil', as leftists are wont to do, is misconceived. There's no underlying interest to expose: the war's liberal-democratic rationalisation really is what it's all about. As Tony Blair said: 'It's worse than you think. I believe in it.'

Readers of my own novels, particularly the Fall Revolution books and some of the more recent ones such as Intrusion and Descent, may find some of the themes outlined above familiar. In the early 1990s when I started writing my first novel, I was convinced that the Left had suffered a whopping, world-historic defeat with the fall of the Soviet bloc regardless of how critical or even hostile they had been to it. However, I did expect that this defeat would in time be overcome.

[Added 10 Jan 2020 The controversial magazine Living Marxism (which became LM and then Sp!ked) spelled out the depth of the defeat and its consequences forcefully in the 1990s, and naturally I paid attention. Cunliffe seems to have drawn on that school of thought too, and in fact has spelled out its logic in Marxist terms more clearly than most. Hence, I think, any parallels. As Cunliffe has kindly clarified, the main source of inspiration in my work for Lenin Lives! was the alt-history novella The Human Front, which doesn't deal with these themes at all.]

Whatever else it does, Lenin Lives! answers a question that has baffled better minds than mine: how on earth did a splinter of the far left mutate into a cadre of contrarian libertarian Brexiters? Two lines of explanation are often explored. The first is that they remain revolutionary communists under deep cover, engaged in some nefarious long-term scheme. The second is that they have been themselves subverted, suborned by the corporations from which they receive funding. I could go into the various reasons why both are wide of the mark, but I've already gone on long enough. By now you can figure it out for yourself:

It's worse than you think. They really believe in it.
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Tuesday, December 31, 2019



That was the river. This is the sea

Over the past few years I've more or less stopped blogging about current politics. Because Twitter, for one thing. For another, my last serious effort at political blogging was during the Scottish independence referendum. Given that I wasn't so much arguing that Scottish independence was a bad idea – though I did – but that the Scottish left had nothing to gain from supporting it, my efforts were fruitless (and thankless, but I expected that).

So if you wanted to know what I thought about Brexit, Trump, Corbyn etc you'd have to look at my Twitter feed. Even on Twitter, I've more or less stopped arguing. Life's too short and I have books to write. But I should have said more here about recent developments in Britain while they were happening.

I registered as a supporter of the Labour Party in time to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. I joined in time to vote for Richard Leonard. And I've been reasonably active locally since, knocking on doors and going to meetings. Inverclyde, the constituency where I live, used to be solid Labour and is now solidly SNP. After a massive swing to the SNP in 2015, the gap narrowed to a few hundred in 2017. We worked very hard to close it over the past couple of years and harder still in the election campaign, to be rewarded by a vastly increased SNP majority.

As for the rest of the UK...

Leave was England's Yes.
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Monday, November 18, 2019



Blue sky over China



I returned just over a week ago from eight days in Beijing, courtesy of the China Association for Science and Technology, which on Sunday November 3 held the China Sci-Fi Convention 2019. My airfare, and our hotel stay during the convention weekend and some incidental expenses, were covered by CAST. One further hotel day was covered Tsinghua University. (My wife's airfare, and other hotel days, we paid ourselves.) Throughout our stay, including all but the last of our sightseeing days either side of the convention, we were most cordially guided and helped by science fiction scholar Fan Zhang, and accompanied by student volunteer translators.

On our arrival we were met at the airport by a young volunteer from CAST, who escorted us to a taxi and took us to the Riverside Hotel on the outskirts of the city. The hotel lobby was already prepared to greet SF fans. While Carol slept off the jet-lag, Fan took me and Francesco out for dinner with a local publisher in the nearest restaurant, which was miles away and reached by a DiDi (local equivalent of Uber) cab. The restaurant was in a residential suburb of high-rise apartments, in a street with a lot of people on bicycles and mopeds as well as in cars, and was big, ornate, and well-patronised. This was my first experience of eating Chinese food in China. I can recommend it.

For our first full day Carol and I decided to explore the hotel's own neighbourhood. This turned out to be the sprawling Beijing International Garden Expo Park, which extends from some rather neglected and run-down exhibits from the 2013 expo to a succession of stunning, elaborate traditional Chinese formal gardens.



One exhibition that we encountered by accident was the Astronautical Theme Park, which had two disused hypermodern exhibition buildings, a closed but still imposing 1.2 scale model space station, and a battery of rocket and spacecraft models on various scales. Grannies and small children wandered through it, over cracked concrete and dry grass. A crow had nested in the upper stage of the tallest rocket. Every few minutes a high-speed train whizzed by on the overhead viaduct. In its melancholic, nostalgic futurism this park was the most Ballardian sight I'd ever seen.



On we wandered, into a Garden Valley built over an old landfill site, past some fish and lily ponds to a viewing platform high above. The approach was by a ramp so wide and long it was like walking into the sky. From there we looked out over Beijing. The city has a few skyscrapers, a CBD cluster, and lots and lots and lots of high-rise apartment blocks. It was a fine day with only a slight haze, and we noticed a zigzag line across the distant hills. The Great Wall!



By mid-afternoon we were searching for refreshments. We later found there are indeed plenty of stalls, but along a main route through the park which just happened not to be the one we'd taken, except now and then accidentally. We went into what was called a souvenir shop, which turned out to be full of jade pieces – from expensive-enough bracelets to eye-filling work at eye-watering prices. In yuan, the price tags of these enormous and elaborate carvings had lots of zeroes. After a mental conversion to sterling, they still had lots of zeroes. But you could see why. The shopkeeper (having evidently sussed us as not likely customers) was warm and friendly, urged us to sit on furniture fit for a palace, took photos for us and waved us a cheery goodbye.



We left the park (which I've only begun to describe) late in the afternoon, via a visit to the shop at the exit gate, which sold soft drinks, snacks and tourist tat. In China this includes quantities of revolutionary kitsch, which seems to fill the exact market niche that royalty kitsch does in the UK. The shop also had a table heaped with of vintage pocket-sized comic-books on patriotic and revolutionary themes.



The following day, after an interview by Cora Chen for Science Writing, a popular science and science fiction magazine, I was introduced to Cece, my volunteer translator. She managed to do what had defeated me and even Fan: she set me up an account on WeChat, the universal communications app in China. Then Carol and I promoted ourselves from tourists to tour guides and conducted Rob Sawyer, Francesco Verso and Jim Kelly around the gardens, accompanied by Cora Chen and by Cece and Vivian, our translator volunteers.



The convention was held in the gigantic conference centre behind the gigantic Riverside Hotel, and was quite unlike any other SF convention I've been to. It was officially sponsored, with representatives from government ministries and other institutions giving opening speeches. Simultaneous translation was available throughout. Huai Jinpeng, the leading Party official at CAST, spoke frankly of China's continued need for further development in science and technology as well as science fiction, and of the importance of 'the sci-fi industry' to Chinese socialism. Professor Wan Yu recounted the field's current statistics and status, which are already impressive. The success of Liu Cixin's Three-Body trilogy and the blockbuster film The Wandering Earth have raised the international profile of Chinese SF, and written SF is seen as an inspiration and source for TV, film, videogames and their associated merchandise, adding up to a multi-billion-dollar sector with huge growth potential.



The group I was in included Francesco Verso, Tullio Avoledo, Robert J Sawyer, Lavie Tidhar, James Patrick Kelly, and Ian McDonald. Other writers from overseas, who spoke on other tracks or in the opening ceremony, included Kevin J. Anderson, Mary Robinette Kowal and Russell Davis. We were only a small part of the convention, which featured many high-profile Chinese SF writers and scholars including Hugo winners Liu Cixin and Hao Jinfang, internationally active fans such as Carolina Gomez Lagerlöf, Crystal Huff and Vincent Docherty, as well as presentations and exhibitions from the media and tech industries. Altogether there were at least a thousand fans in attendance, and the convention was well covered by the Chinese media.

On the Saturday we gave talks at Beijing's China Science and Technology Museum (a bright and amazing place, swarming with delighted children) and on the Sunday we had the above-mentioned opening ceremony followed by a session in the afternoon which began with the founding ceremony of the Science Fiction Committee of the Chinese Science Writers Association, continued with talks from venerated Chinese SF scholars and writers, and concluded with panels by us, ably and affably chaired by Professor Yan Feng and Stanley Chan.



The afternoon session was followed in short order by a banquet. A Chinese banquet consists of many small courses, and many toasts. (Options for the toast were wine, orange juice and a potent Chinese spirit.) Our hosts from every institution involved went around the tables chatting to each individual, group or couple, and each such conversation was concluded by a toast. After that we were hastened through to the conference centre, where a less formal banquet (buffet-style) was going on for the attendees. A local band was performing Frank Sinatra songs. We took a glass or two of wine from the circulating trays, picked up our freebie bags and headed off for an early night.



On Monday, after a later than usual start, Fan decanted us all to the Holiday Inn Beijing Deshengmen, much closer to the city centre. Rob invited us and Jim to go out with him and a local friend, Nancy. Nancy took us further downtown by foot and by taxi, via lunch at a local diner, to two very different bookshops. The first was Zhengyang Shuju Two, in a courtyard containing a pagoda tower, and specialised in books and memorabilia of Old Beijing.



The second was the Beijing Book Building, the biggest bookshop in China. It's like a very big Borders, with one small difference. Near the entrance there's a bookcase of 'Leaders' Works' – on one side Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, then on the other an aisle devoted to Mao and Deng and their comrades and successors, and on to the works of President Xi Jinping. A table alongside displayed copies of Reliable Marx, a recently-published popularising work. Next, a couple more aisles on 'Party-Building in the New Era' and 'Honest Administration'. And then, for aisle after aisle and floor after floor, book after book on everything else: art, craft, science, economics, management, history, philosophy, and Chinese and foreign fiction of all kinds – science fiction very much included.



A hasty half-hour browse there was followed by a taxi back to the hotel, a quick change, and another taxi that took me, Rob, and Jim to Tsinghua University, to a regular weekly class taught by Jia Liyuan (who writes SF under the penname Fei Dao) on writing science fiction. We each spoke for about thirty minutes (with an interpreter) on various aspects of the craft. The class was of about fifty people, more or less evenly divided between men and women, and between science and humanities backgrounds. They listened with great attention and asked searching questions. The campus was still whizzing with bicycles when we emerged at about 10 pm.



On Tuesday morning Fan took Jim, Rob, Carol and I (with Alice, our translator) to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Besides beauty, the scale of the succession of walls and palaces gives an overwhelming impression of power.



By contrast the Summer Palace, which we visited in the afternoon, gives an equally powerful impression of tranquillity.



On Wednesday Fan took Carol and I, Rob and Jim, and Alice to the Great Wall. The views are sweeping, the climb exhilarating, the Wall astonishing. We had a good day for it, clear and sunny and above all dry – climbing a succession of steep ramps and steeper stairs was challenging enough in these perfect conditions, and must be outright scary in the wet. At some parts it's like clambering on a roof. Naturally we were overtaken at various stages by old folk and small children.



On the (even steeper) route down I paused at the foot of a stone ladder that I'd descended one stoic step at a time to see a young woman dance down, arms out.



Fan then took us all out to dinner, during which we discovered that Alice was a science fiction fan herself, and in a science fiction club at her university in Beijing. Quite a small club, she explained, with only a few hundred members...

For our last day in Beijing, Carol and I took a walk through two linked parks south of the hotel, along the shores of Xihai Sea and Hoahai Lake, to a busy historic shopping street with a marked variety of shops – from the boutique where we admired but didn't buy exquisite and expensive painted fans to the dusty, untidy antique shop where I bought a small green stone Buddha for 800 yuan. After buying gifts and souvenirs at shops and stalls in between these extremes we negotiated (with some spontaneous help from a young woman passer-by) a late-afternoon taxi ride to The Bookworm – a thriving English-language bookstore, library, cafe and meeting place which, as we'd sadly learned, was about to have to close down (as indeed it just has).



There we met Rob, Jim and some local friends for a beer, a quick dinner and a lively discussion, followed by an all too brief session with a science fiction fan group which (like the shop's clientele in general) was a mix of expats and locals. The local fans had interesting things to say about Chinese SF, based on their own reading of it from childhood on. The expats gave an interesting perspective on how fast Beijing is changing. Air quality has improved markedly over the past few years, as Rob Sawyer had noticed as soon as he arrived.



An early start on Friday, as we met Fan in the lobby at 8 and he arranged us a final taxi, to the airport. Our warmest thanks to him! -- and to all who made our trip so unforgettable.

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Monday, September 16, 2019



Other People's Politics

Other People's Politics: Populism to Corbynism

J. A. Smith, Zero Books, 2019

Around 2010 or so, I attended a Battle of Ideas panel on populism and/or Euroscepticism, featuring David Aaronovitch and (I think) Bruno Waterfield. In the discussion, someone said that populism reacted to a political system that empowered elites and excluded ordinary people. Aaronovitch retorted that ordinary people had never been more enfranchised: if you were discontented, there were plenty of parties to choose from, petitions to start or sign, FOIA appeals to make... How much more open could a political system be?

I pointed out from the floor that if you read comments on blogs and below-the-line on newspaper articles (this was before Twitter and Facebook took off), you found a boiling pit of fury and hostility towards every element of the Blair-Brown-Cameron continuity: the EU, climate change policy, immigration, 'political correctness', smoking bans, forever wars, bank bail-outs ... and a real sense that railing against them online was all that could be done.

To which Aaronovitch responded: 'These could all be by the same two hundred people!'

I had no come-back to that, not even in my mind. Well, we ken noo.

There are already several interesting books about Corbynism, from a broadly supportive position: Richard Seymour's Corbyn, Alex Nunn's The Candidate, and Steve Howell's Game Changer. All of them, particularly Nunn's, locate Corbynism in the politics of the post-crash labour (and Labour) movement: the slow build-up of stress that produced the earthquake. Other People's Politics is likewise sympathetic, but examines Corbynism from a different angle, that of its relation to populism. Populism in turn is examined in relation to social media. Social media and populism are mutual accelerants, as perfectly matched as mass media are (or were) to consensus politics. On Twitter we're free to say more or less what we like, within the law and the limits of arbitrarily applied and algorithmically policed 'terms of use'. A far more pervasive constraint is that any utterance can be jumped on, and become the focus of a whirlwind of vituperation: a pile-on. Twitter constitutes us as human dust, intermittently whipped up into a storm. And all the time, our free utterances, our freely registered likes and dislikes, our click-throughs, feed the analytic algorithms of advertising and politics, endlessly and mindlessly grinding away.

The unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party has some things in common with the unexpected size of the Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum, the unexpected victory of Leave in the EU referendum, the unexpected victory of Trump in the US, and the unexpected surge of the Labour vote in 2017. Each was more than a surprise. They registered as events that shouldn't have happened, and by all past reckoning couldn't have happened: an anomaly, a shock, an affront. Social media played a big part in all of them – sometimes at the expense of face-to-face campaigning, the ground game, but this under-the-radar aspect contributed to the shock of their actual or near success.

Ironically enough, Britain's unprecedented and unparalleled post-referendum upsurge of a mass pro-EU movement, with its huge street demonstrations, tragic face-painters and flag-wearers, and hashtag #FBPE, could itself be seen as a variety of populism: one that constitutes a different 'people' against a different 'elite'. Instead of 'the bankers' or 'the establishment', the villains become hedge-funds and disaster capitalists. #FPBE have their own conspiracy theories: Cambridge Analytica, Russian dark money, Putin. Heck, they're even convinced that the BBC is biased against them. From the outside, viewed in the small shiny rectangle of the smartphone screen, #FBPE can seem as closed-minded, obnoxious and deluded as the Brexiters do to them, as the cybernats did to me, and as Corbynism's own online army (in which I'm a very minor footslogger) evidently does to New Labour's middle-aged old soldiers (aka 'centrist dads').

But, as Smith puts it, populism is always 'other people's politics'. The bright rectangle is always a window, seldom a mirror. Smith walks us through that mirror. If we can bear to look at it, he argues, Corbynism too is a populism, and all the better for it. All populisms say the 'unsayable', but not all of them say the same. A left populism would blame the powerful, not the powerless, for social problems. Trump says things his supporters wish they 'could' say, whereas Corbyn says things his supporters have been for years on end inwardly screaming for someone, anyone with a public platform to say. There's no doubt that Corbynism has constituted a 'people' of its own: the leftists and socialists who never went away but were excluded from any recognition in the mainstream, and who were largely isolated from each other and indeed unaware of each other's existence. Like the cybernats, now a permanent presence in Scotland, they can be repeatedly dismissed as an online bubble – until they suddenly manifest in the real world. 'Where did all these people come from?' – as a Labour candidate is heard to ask in 2017 as her canvassers are reinforced by an army of volunteers, mobilised by Momentum's 'My Nearest Marginal' app.

Strong and persuasive though this book is on the emotional and ideological intricacies of how a populist appeal can gain traction, and how it can confound the expectations of the sensible centre – tracing, for example, the success of Donald Trump's transgressive rampages, and the conniving nods and winks of irony and deniability in the memetic tactics of the alt-right – it has little to say on the record of left-populism itself, barely glancing at its greatest debacle: Syriza. But to ask that of it would be to ask for a different book. (It's not like there aren't plenty of left critiques of left populism to choose from.) This one does its own job, and does it well.
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Tuesday, June 18, 2019



John McDonnell: My Part in his Rise

In the spring of 1977 I was a resident of Hayes, a research student at Brunel University, and a raw and active supporter of the International Marxist Group. The IMG had a few hundred members and was widely considered to punch above its weight. It did, but in so many directions that it hit mostly air.

The then Labour Government led by James Callaghan tried to deal with the crisis of the postwar settlement by extending social reforms in exchange for wage restraint. This strategy, begun under Harold Wilson, was known as the Social Contract, and was already under severe strain. The reforms were significant but seemed inadequate, and in any case their effects were for the most part jam tomorrow. Wage increases were jam today. The government's policies were widely opposed by the left inside and outside the Labour Party, by a militant minority of trade unionists, and by broader unrest among women, black people and disaffected youth. In Northern Ireland, no hope for an end – of any kind -- to the Troubles was remotely in sight. The Labour Government was opposed or pressured from the right, of course: by sections of the state, the City, almost all the press, the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher, and the small but fast-growing National Front and other fascist groups. Seldom has the spotlit enclave been more relentlessly shelled.

Looking back, standing candidates against Labour in local elections might not seem the best use of the far left's slender resources, but stand candidates we did. The IMG stood four candidates in that year's elections for the Greater London Council. Hardly anybody had heard of the IMG, so its candidates stood as Socialist (IMG). We had badges and everything. I may still have one.

One GLC constituency in which we stood was Southall, central to which was the largest Asian community -- overwhelmingly industrial working class and small-business in social composition -- in West London. The Socialist (IMG) candidate for Southall was Gerry Hedley, a modest, serious and cheerful militant. A lecturer in art, he had no roots in Southall, but he had support and endorsement from local activists who did. When Hedley addressed one meeting of what seemed like hundreds, from bearded elders to young radicals, he got supportive speeches from the platform in Urdu and Punjabi, as well as English.

One local labour movement left-wing activist whose support we were keen to get was John McDonnell. I, along with a far more dedicated and experienced comrade, met him in a cafe to sound him out. McDonnell may have agreed with many of our criticisms of Callaghan's Labour, but he was adamant that he wouldn't endorse our candidate. The Labour Party's rules, then as now, were strict. Any member who supported a non-Labour candidate in an election would be slung out on their ear. McDonnell had no intention of that happening to him. In the end, we pleaded with him to at least privately vote for us, and perhaps hint to a few close and trusted comrades that lending us their vote might... McDonnell was having none of it. We parted cordially, empty-handed.

If we'd been more persuasive, or if he'd been less staunch in his loyalty to the Labour Party, John McDonnell would almost certainly not now be the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Say not the struggle naught availeth.

This footnote in history has two footnotes of its own:

1. GLC May 1977 Southall election results (Source, pdf) (See also)

Seive, Mrs Y. Labour 13,330
Schindler, R. Conservative 12,417
Stevens, K. Liberal 2,094
Franklin, Mrs B.P. National Front 1,872
Hedley, G.A. Socialist (IMG) 996

2. Gerry Hedley became Reader at the Courtauld Institute of Art and an innovative researcher in the field of fine art conservation, where he is still – many years after his untimely death in a climbing accident -- remembered with great respect.
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