On 27th of March, I arrived home; sleep-deprived, unwashed and deflated. I’d been arrested at Fortnum & Mason the day before, along with 145 others - many of whom were my friends.
This is the first time I’ve openly spoken about what happened, not uncoincidentally the same day that the charges against me were dropped. I won’t go into detail about the arrest itself, not least because I already have, anonymously, shortly after it happened. But there are some things I want to say about the experience as a whole.
Firstly, I want to talk about what it has felt like to go through this experience. In many ways, it’s simply been an irritant - administrative, frustrating, tedious. I’d say I spent most of the time in Freudian levels of denial, knowing very little about my own case, becoming monosyllabic and withdrawn when the subject was brought up, being tardy with the reams of paper I was expected to fill in. In fact, paper was really what defined the ordeal for me - hundreds of emails, notes, letters, forms. It was so fiddly and boring, I almost would have preferred more time in prison.
There was another side to it too - a side I want to talk about with caution: I’m not really into fuelling the idea that protest is romantic, or about martyrdom. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it hard - that I didn’t find the Home Secretary lying about us in parliament isolating, or the Mayor of London accusing us of things we hadn’t done on Question Time infuriating, or the Met turning up at my front door with veiled threats intimidating, or the Daily Mail harrassing me distressing. It was, I found at least, a lonely time. I hated lying to colleagues about why I suddenly didn’t have a phone. I hated it being brought up in front of painfully conventional people who reacted as though I’d just announced a penchant for dogging. A lot of the time it did feel like a shameful secret. And while I have never felt that what I did was wrong, I did - at times - regret it, because of the inconvenience and worry that came with it. I’ve always thought that was why the decision was made to put us through this, and for me it worked, to an extent.
To me, the actions of the Met felt like a particularly mendacious attempt to silence people who were doing something incendiary, but not illegal. The Met and CPS have handled it so shambolically, and I’ve always thought that was because things like this aren’t actually supposed to happen. This isn’t why we have the police, or the courts, or the government - to try and scare the shit out of ordinary people. That isn’t how this is supposed to go.
But enough despair. This is the first post I’ve written for New Left Project for a while, so I’ll end it positively.
We talk a lot about solidarity on the left. We see it as essential in our battle for a better world; a battle against those that have no qualms in dividing us. When I thought of solidarity, I’d often think of someone holding a flag up with a red star, people with dirt under their fingernails, mass movements, rage, fire, determination - all of the above. But I don’t really think that anymore.
Solidarity is my parents waiting for four hours outside Sutton Police Station for me. Solidarity is my housemates making me chilli con carne when I got home. It’s the fact that not one single family member or friend ever thought I had done anything wrong, or considered doing anything other than standing by me. Solidarity was my fellow co-editors at New Left Project putting out a message of support before I’d even left my cell. It was the literally hundreds of messages of support I came home to from people who only know me by a pixelated photo and my 140 character conjecture, but still felt compelled to show support. That really meant a lot.
So, trite as it is, I really wanted to say thank you to those people who supported me. Thank you. Thank you, too, to Bindmans solicitors - especially Mike Schwartz who gave up so many of his precious Saturdays for our defendants meetings. Thank you to the Guardian, Private Eye and Independent for their blinding and brave coverage, in particular Sarah Morrison and Shiv Malik and others - you know who you are. Thank you to my parents, most of all, who cheered when I got out of my cell, and showed strength that I didn’t. And finally, thank you to UK Uncut, which taught me to be bold and idealistic - and made me believe in people again.
So what next? Well, of course we will focus energy on getting the last thirty defendants off - defendants who are being depicted as more guilty on the most arbitrary grounds, and who have no more reason to be in front of a court than I do. I also feel we need to find out why this happened, and is still happening, to us. Because, despite charges being dropped, it is still happening to us. When we entered Fortnum & Mason, we did so together; when we left, we left with our arms linked. When we were arrested, we huddled together. So, like George Osborne would say, we are all in this together. And now the thirty remaining defendants must have their charges dropped too - because that’s what solidarity is, ultimately: either we will all be vindicated, or none of us will.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the News of the World’s final issue on 10 July was its prominent use of a quotation by George Orwell – on the back page and again as the opening paragraph in the Page Three editorial. In full, the quote reads:
‘It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World.’
Such a positioning of the quote, if nothing else, confirms the extraordinary, iconic place George Orwell still holds in the political and cultural life of the country – more than 60 years after his death at the tragically young age of 46.
Yet on closer inspection, the quote appears to be a strange choice to adorn NotW’s “Thank you and goodbye” edition. It comes at the start of an essay he wrote while literary editor of the leftist weekly journal Tribune. Titled “Decline of the English Murder” it was published on 15 February 1946.
Over around 2,000 words Orwell examines nine murder cases during what he describes as the “great period” between 1850 and 1925 and compares them to the Cleft Chin Murder of 1944 (so called because the victim, a taxi driver, had a cleft chin). Orwell lists the “great” murders (Dr Palmer of Rugely, Jack the Ripper, Neill Cream, Mrs Maybrick, Dr Crippen, Seddon, Joseph Smith, Armstrong, and Bywaters and Thompson) but provides no dates.
Analysing them (and excluding the Jack the Ripper case since “it is in a class by itself”) he finds that most of the criminals belonged to the middle class, most involved poisoning and the background to all (except one) was domestic: of twelve victims seven were either wife or husband of the murderer. From these conclusions Orwell goes on to construct a fascinating picture of the “perfect” murder:
The murderer should be a little man of the professional class – a dentist or a solicitor, say – living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall. He should be either chairman of the local Conservative Party branch, or a leading Nonconformist and strong Temperance advocate. He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man, and should only bring himself to the point of murder after long and terrible wrestles with his conscience.
In contrast to these murders, Orwell castigates the Cleft Chin Murder for having “no depth of feeling in it”. The two culprits involved, an eighteen-year-old ex-waitress Elizabeth Jones and an American army deserter, posing as an officer, Karl Hulten, sadly lacked the middle classness of the “great murderers”. Rather than use poison in a seedy domestic drama, Hulten and Jones went on a mindless killing spree – first running over a girl bicycling along a road, then throwing a girl into the river after robbing her and finally murdering a taxi driver who happened to have £8 in his pocket.
While the News of the World prided itself on its appeal across the classes and to the working man and woman, here Orwell betrays his underlying middle classness. This he associates with stability and strong, authentic emotion in contrast to the instability and working classness of the contemporary murder. For Orwell, “the old domestic poisoning dramas” were a “product of a stable society where the all-pervading hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them”.
As Paul Anderson says in his brilliant overview of Orwell’s writings while on Tribune (Politico’s 2006), this essay amounts to a “masterpiece of dark nostalgia for the good old days of middle class poisoners”.
The quotation also identifies the imagined reader as exclusively male (the wife is said to be “asleep in the armchair”). This then again makes the quote a strange one for the NotW to use so prominently – since women as much as men were its target audience.
But on reflection perhaps the Orwell essay about the decline of English murder was a subtle choice by the editor: Rupert Murdoch, after all, killed off his 168-year-old Sunday jewel in a ruthless act which appears to have had “no depth of feeling in it”.
* Professor Richard Lance Keeble is Acting Head of the Lincoln School of Journalism
This is a guest post by NLP Contributing Editor Maeve McKeown.
“As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care. The suffering and death that are occurring there now are not inevitable, not unavoidable…”
“At the individual level, people have, with very few exceptions, not responded to the situation in any significant way. Generally speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed towards providing the refugees with the means to satisfy their essential needs.”
History repeating itself – a sad but true cliché. As Britain is embroiled in a media scandal, thousands of people are slowly starving to death in East Africa, largely unnoticed.
Singer begins with the assumption that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.” He argues, “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
This principle seems obvious, but in reality, it fundamentally challenges the way we live our lives in consumer societies. To prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we would have to give up almost everything we own until the level of marginal utility; that is, until the level where we have the most basic standard of living necessary to survive.
Singer argues that this is morally correct. He admits, however, that the demanding nature means that most people will not adopt such a principle. He suggests instead that, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought morally to do it.”
For example, if you walk past a shallow pond where a child is drowning, you ought to go into the pond and save the child. All you are sacrificing are wet, muddy clothes and a loss of time; these are not as morally significant as the death of a child.
What does this mean for individuals in developed countries? Singer suggests, it means not buying new clothes, or a new car, or whatever consumer item you feel you need, but giving that money to famine relief. If what you already own is acceptable, owning these items is not of comparable moral significance to the death of an individual due to famine. It would not be good of you to give that money to famine relief, it would not be an act of charity; it is a moral obligation.
If you can prevent something bad from happening (death through starvation) without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance (clothes, booze, electronics), you ought morally to do it.
What’s wrong with this argument? Well, it is an argument about individual morality. We know that the causes of poverty and famine are structural. So simply appealing to individual morality is inadequate. We need to rethink and transform the political and economic structures that allow chronic poverty and famine to occur. Individual morality, however, is a good place to start.
If you are still not convinced, let me suggest a further reason why you should donate. Famine is not a natural disaster; it is man-made. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen pointed out three decades ago, there has never been a famine in a functioning democracy. While the years of drought that have precipitated the crisis in East Africa are natural phenomena, the ability to cope with this is not. A functioning government, which can fairly distribute food and resources, can prevent disaster.
Why doesn’t that exist in these countries? Bad governance? Partly, yes. But also as a result of IMF policies that prevented them from developing viable public sectors. In the 90s, the IMF demanded developing countries open their markets to foreign direct investment (FDI) if they wanted to keep receiving loans.
Foreign multinational corporations and governments have bought up the most fertile land in these countries, leaving wasteland for those who live there. This neo-colonial land grab, designed to keep Western countries functioning at their current levels of consumption, has also gone largely unnoticed.
Have you lobbied British companies that are involved? Have you checked if you pension fund or bank is involved? Have you written to your MP condemning this heinous practice? No? We are all complicit in this – this famine, and the next one, and the next one. It’s time, at the very least, to mitigate some of its effects.
So instead of going to the pub tonight and spending £50 on booze and partying, give it to the DEC. As Singer has shown us this isn’t a matter of choice, it’s a moral imperative.
Quotes from Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, reprinted in Thom Brooks ed., The Global Justice Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008
“A state ruled by law cannot tolerate any spontaneous or organised violence. Everybody must realise that the attacks against parliament, MPs and other citizens are mutilating democracy und undermining civil rights... [We must guard against a] derailment of democracy.”
- Papandreou, today, condemning popular resistance to those austerity measures.
“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”
- US President Barack Obama, March 2009, to the CEOs of thirteen of America’s largest financial institutions at a special meeting in the White House.
When George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, stood up in parliament in October to tell the country about his plans to unleash the biggest cuts to public spending in living memory, one British family had cause to celebrate: the Windsors.
A mood of austerity may be stalking Britain, but the champagne is still flowing at Buckingham Palace thanks to a government plan to put the queen on what might be seen as profit-related pay... The chancellor proposed protecting the royal family from the gyrations of the property market by making sure the amount could never fall below what was paid during the previous year... Palace insiders believe the first annual settlement, to be paid in April 2013, will be £30m, and will rise in line with inflation in subsequent years.
This is particularly striking given revelations in the Observer this weekend that for some 40,000 families (not including the Windsors of course), the government would not be extending public funding or indeed, protecting them from the “gyrations of the property market” - quite the reverse. A leaked letter from Erik Pickles regarding the government’s planned spending cuts and benefits reforms reveals that it is likely that thousands will be unable to pay their rent and therefore rendered homeless.
Even by the government’s own estimates, the potential £270m saving from these proposed benefits cap will be “wiped out” by the need to divert resources to help the newly homeless and is actually likely to “generate a net cost”. This is therefore either monstrous incompetence on the part of the government, or a very stark illustration of the kind of overt class warfare that is being waged against people in Britain in the name of austerity.
If we take the example of Merthyr Tydfil - currently the hardest place in Britain to find work, and, say, the government’s policy of forcing up to one-third of those on incapacity benefit into the workforce, it is rather hard not to come to the conclusion that it is a little from column A and a little from column B. Sounding not unlike Norman Tebbit’s infamous “on yer bike” speech, Welfare secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, last year told jobseekers in Merthyr to “get on a bus” and look for work in Cardiff. What he did not seem to appreciate was that the Welsh capital’s job surge is slowing and, as the FT points out, “a city of 330,000 would find it hard to generate jobs for the 50,000 or more who will soon be looking for work in the valleys”.
“The poor still haven’t had enough pain yet to become truly afraid. History taught our ancestors that the lower orders need to be controlled through fear, and we have forgotten that lesson. Once the bonds connecting them with each other have finally been broken they will become willing and compliant workers once again, only this time at the wage-levels our great-grandfathers imposed on them. Only then will the country return to stability and abandon its recent obsession with ‘progress’.”
“Tinkering, .... is a preliminary to large-scale change. There can’t be large-scale structural change unless a very substantial part of the population is deeply committed to it. It’s going to have to come from the organized efforts of a dedicated population. That won’t happen, and shouldn’t happen, unless people perceive that reform efforts, the tinkering, are running into barriers that cannot be overcome without institutional change. Then you get pressure for institutional change. But short of that realization, there is no reason why people should take the risks, make the effort, or face the uncertainty and the punishment that’s involved in serious change. That’s why every serious revolutionary is a reformist. If you’re a serious revolutionary, you don’t want a coup. You want changes to come from below, from the organized population. But why should people be willing to undertake what’s involved in serious institutional change unless they think that the institutions don’t permit them to achieve just and proper goals?”
Marxism 2011 was my first visit to the annual Marxism festival in London, and on the whole it was a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience. I thought I’d jot down a few of my impressions of the event. If you attended as well, then do feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments box below.
One remark I heard being made quite frequently throughout the weekend was that this year’s conference was better attended than most due to what’s been happening these past six months in the Middle East and North Africa. Plainly the various Arab revolutions and uprisings are not united under a socialist banner, but socialists and trade unionists have been playing an active and key role in those events nonetheless, alongside liberals and many other sections of Arab society, politically organised or otherwise. It is certainly true that the “Arab Spring” is of direct relevance and interest to the socialist left, whose analysis of global political economy describes an international state-corporate power structure wherein the despots of the Arab world are linked directly, through arms supplies, diplomatic support and IMF/World Bank seals of approval, to our own governments here in the West.
Listening to the first hand accounts of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions of activists visiting from those countries brought back for me some of the same feelings I’d experienced in January and February this year, when the toppling of Mubarak followed the toppling of Ben Ali, and (at least before the bloody stalemates in Libya and Syria, and the crushing of the uprising in Bahrain) the possibilities seemed endless. One cannot help being overwhelmed with admiration for the people who risked life and limb to resist those Western-backed police states; the people, for instance, who lay down in front, behind and to either side of the tanks deployed by Mubarak against the demonstrators, doing all they could to take force out of the equation and thus move the battle out of the state’s chosen terrain - violence - and onto territory where it could not resist the will of the people. My awe of their bravery was coupled with the shame of knowing that the British government had consistently armed and otherwise supported the forces that had been crushing those people for so long. The meaning of the much-used term ‘solidarity’ becomes very real in this context; speaking more of responsibilities than gestures. What better way, after all, to demonstrate our genuine solidarity with the Arab peoples than to campaign and speak out against Britain’s record of materially supporting the despotic regimes of the region, from Bahrain to the Israeli occupation of Palestine?
Being on the left, almost by definition, means standing in opposition to illegitimate power in whichever form it presents itself. As such, we find ourselves cut off from mainstream political discourse, dominated as it is by the corporate media and the political class, and so, in effect, cut off from each other, and rendered comparatively weak and isolated. For these reasons, any gathering of the left has the intrinsic value of boosting the morale upon which active political engagement depends, reminding us that we are not isolated and providing us with the opportunity for collective self-affirmation and reinvigoration. In that context, a bit of polemic in the various talks and discussion forums can be seen as no bad thing, although for me, the real value in those sessions was to be found in the analysis of the various issues under consideration, which was often of a genuinely high quality.
The stand-out session of those I attended was that hosted by retired academic Colin Barker as part of a series entitled “Understanding Revolution”. Barker explained in clear and engaging terms the ways in which revolutions tend to unfold, and how we can tell when a genuine revolution is occurring, doing so with constant reference to contemporary developments. As well as being fascinating in its own right, such analysis has a vital, practical function for activists who plainly cannot hope to engage with and challenge power in a productive way unless they have a serious understanding of the political economy and how it functions. More generally, by helping to promote a lively intellectual culture within the left, the Marxism conference helps to maintain the quality of our analysis and our political critique. In that respect, it was encouraging to see the breadth of topics under discussion in an impressively wide-ranging programme over five days.
One criticism I would offer is over ticket prices (and readers can make their own judgement on my hypocrisy over this, as the beneficiary of a free press pass myself). Forty pounds - or to put it another way, more than half a week’s jobseekers allowance - seems like rather a lot to ask of prospective non-waged attendees. I realise that the organisers must have considerable costs to meet, but free entry for the unemployed would potentially be a rather good way for the left to engage with and involve a key section of society that it hopes to represent. I don’t know how feasible such a policy would be, but it seems to be worth considering.
However, that’s one criticism set against a number of positive impressions. I look forward to next year’s event, at which point we’ll hopefully have the demise of a few more dictators to celebrate.
David Wearing is a post-graduate researcher in Political Science at the School of Public Policy, University College London, and co-editor of the New Left Project.