Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football selects his reading for the 2015 General Election Campaign
The much-missed indie band, well by some of us of a certain age, Sultans of Ping, had a great line in one of their barnstormer numbers “I like your manifesto, put it to the test ’tho.” We are told in all seriousness that this is the most important General Election, ever, yet it will be fought between the three parties of the mainstream with ever-decreasing differences in their politics. Most important? Not in those terms, the importance lies almost entirely in the busting apart of the Westminster cartel, the centre this time really won’t hold.
Veteran rebel, aka 1960s ‘street fighting man’, Tariq Ali proves the durability of a countercultural idealism. Tariq’s new book Extreme Centre is a splendid denunciation of the battle for the middle ground and never mind the rest of us.
After Neoliberalism? and its companion volume The Neoliberal Crisis are both framed by a similar 1968-inflected politics to that of Tariq Ali. A shared belief that another politics is not only necessary but possible. As the dull grey reality of #GE2015 threatens to smother any lingering hope these are essential reads. An optimism of the intellect revived by a new wave of writers, thinkers and activists too.
Owen Jones is nothing short of a phenomenon, someone from the left who can brighten up the dullest of TV studio debates, a wilful energy to inspire that is founded on good writing. His latest, The Establishment is more than enough to convince anyone of the maxim “whoever we vote for the government always gets in.”
Naomi Klein first made her name as a hugely influential figure in the early twenty-first century movements of global resistance with her innovative book No Logo. Naomi’s This Changes Everything shows every sign of making a similar impact, this time to refresh and renew a Climate Change movement that desperately needs to find a form of politics to catapult the issue to the very top of any pile of governmental priorities. The #GE2015 campaign goes to show just how far we still have to go to achieve that vital ambition.
The best contemporary writer on the plight of urban Britain is without a shadow of a doubt the sublimely gifted Owen Hatherley. His recent A New Kind of Bleak could almost be a guidebook to the communities that barely merit a mention in any General Election Campaign. This is the Britain of deindustrialised disconnection, not the handful of swing marginals that matter infinitely more to the politicians and their spinners. Two more books provide an essential politico-travelogue through this other Britain. Mary O’Hara’s Austerity Bites. is reportage from the sharp end of the poverty and inequality divide. While from James Meek a new edition of his superb Private Island. The elegantly polemical writing just what you would expect from a London Review of Books irregular
In the swing marginals that our neo-rotten borough political system elevates to such central importance and more or less sod the rest the General Election campaign will be decisively shaped by race defined almost entirely by the issue of immigration. What British politics desperately needs is the kind of understanding of nationhood that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown provides in her latest book Exotic England. Not only do we have UKiP dragging the entire discourse on immigration dramatically to the Right, but Labour has proved singularly incapable of articulating a vision of the virtues of a multicultural society, and the extra-parliamentary anti-racist campaigns neither have much of a popular dimension nor are willing to engage with any kind of project for a progressive, pluralist Englishness. Yasmin shows in her beautifully written book how all three elements of this recipe for a social disaster have an inadequate understanding of race and nation.
There will be much asking of the question, why are young people so disengaged with politics? The question of course should be asked the other way round, why is so much of politics disengaged with the young? There are of course exceptions, and these tell us plenty about the degeneration of the political. Norman Finkelstein graphically describes in Method and Madness the horrors that Israel has successively inflicted on Palestine. It is a subject that mobilises the passion of tens of thousands on occasion, many are young, yet where will any denunciation of Israel feature in the General Election campaign. With honourable, and few, exceptions, nowhere. It will be the same by and large with the near universal absence of voices that are pro-trade union rather than indulging in the simplified vocabulary of ‘trade union barons’. Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain’s astonishing book Blacklisted combines investigative journalism with campaigning politics to reveal where such an absence will leave us. The bullying, harassment and spying on of workers who stand up for basic rights to organise.
An early critic of the profound weaknesses of Parliamentary Socialism was of course Ralph Miliband. Weaknesses accelerated during the period when his two sons came to prominence as MPs. Handily republished just in time for Ed’s campaign, Class War Conservatism reminds us of the superbly polemical analysis his father once provided. An essential antidote to Labour’s 2015 Manifesto.
Miliband senior was of course an unapologetic Marxist, his work characterised by the creative application of theory to practice. He was part of an era when varied, sometimes conflicting, versions of creative Marxism flourished, dominated in particular by the interest in the work of Antonio Gramsci. It is most welcome therefore that a new collection of freshly translated and interpreted work by Gramsci has been published, The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926.
It is rarely remarked upon but a deadly combination of technocratic managerialism with marketisation and the meekest of resistance to both has led to the more or less wholesale elimination of any sort of popular political intervention of much note by academics outside of their university sinecures. David Graeber is not only a welcome exception to this sorry situation but in his new book The Utopia of Rules he furiously yet effectively critiques the culture of top-heavy bureaucracy.
Should the absence of public and radical intellectuals matter? Read the superb History on Our Side by Hywel Francis for the most convincing of arguments why it does. Mixing labour history and political theory in the context of the 1984-85 Miners Strike Hywel’s writing epitomises the kind of work that helps to shape communities of interest out of struggle. The most fitting of memoirs to this most epic of industrial disputes.
Of course nobody in their right minds would suggest that movements for change will be the same today as those that fought that battle for Coal not Dole a generation ago. Two recent books give us the beginnings of an insight into how the terrain of what it means to be radical has changed. Clive Bloom’s Riot City provides a much-needed theoretical backdrop to the upsurge in inner-city direct action. Of different varieties certainly, the student tuition fee protests, Occupy London, the Summer 2011 riots, but each affected by the same punitive clampdown, and each in their different ways seeking to force the subject of change on to an agenda that wilfully ignores such demands. Sroja Popovic and Matthew Miller’s Blueprint for Revolution has a more internationalist flavour yet combines this with something altogether rare, a practical methodology for revolutionary change.
What British politics so singularly lacks right now is the capacity to inspire. When this does happens it electrifies portions of the electorate otherwise untouched by the Westminster Bubble. This helps explain the Green Surge and the irresistible post-referendum rise of the SNP. Neither the success of the Greens nor the SNP fit any pre-existing model of an Outside Left. In part this is because the resources of hope that do exist have become detached as much from the organised Left as organised politics.
The appeal of Woody Guthrie, revisited in the splendidly illustrated Woody Guthrie and the Dustbowl Ballads has a certain timelessness which means it is never entirely extinguished, it is in the undergrowth of popular music that a return to the political is beginning to re-emerge that can’t be entirely separated from Woody’s legacy. But at the same time it is just as likely to be influenced by the single most important political figure of inspiration of the modern era, Banksy. Yes a graffiti artist and sometime filmmaker has single-handedly reinvented the radical appeal of the situationists with a popular reach few traditional political figures come anywhere close to matching. Banksy’s work has been superbly chronicled in a new collection This is not a Photo Opportunity which goes out of its way to place his work in this political, oppositional context.
Nobody would ever claim the Soviet Union made any mistake in recognising the political role of art. The wonderfully titled CCCP (Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed) is the perfect coffee table book for unrepentant Marxists. The mix of the beautiful and the brutal in Soviet era architecture beautifully restored to former glories in the pages of this book before decay and disinvestment threaten their disappearance. The very well-edited journal Twentieth Century Communism is the best single source of an up-to-date historiography of this social movement that so decisively shaped the last century. The latest edition ranges over Communist organisation in Brittany, family and sex in the Chilean Communist Youth of the Allende era, and Scandinavian Communists. Or for another episode from the margins of history read a new account of American Maoism and its peculiar impact on the protest movements of the USA in the 1970s and 1980s. Heavy Radicals provides a rare insight into the motivations and political culture of a fringe culture on the American Left.
The two most decisive twentieth century global events whose legacy continues to shape the twenty-first century however are surely the First and Second World Wars. At the end of April the centenary of Gallipoli will be marked, the 1915 campaign most represented by the contribution of Australian and New Zealand troops (ANZAC). From Australia a brilliant effort by left wing scholars and writers to understand the impact of this era on today, What’s Wrong with ANZAC? It is an urgent necessity for the British Left to produce a similarly popular, sometimes unpopular, intervention on the shaping of our own martial history. Chris Bambery’s The Second World War: A Marxist History is a fine indication of the potential for such a project, but we need more of this and across the entire left and radical spectrum.
But how do we propel this uncovering of the meaning of the past into the everyday? There is no finer, more imaginative exponent of this vital yet difficult task than the pioneering David Rosenberg. A long-standing activist and writer who has reinvented himself as a guide and organiser of radical history walking tours of London. A brilliant idea, combining tourism and pleasure, exercise and history, fun and the odd tea or beer stop. David has now compiled these routes into a guidebook, Rebel Footprints though for the ‘real’ experience why not join him for a walk, details on his website East End Walks. A history workshop of the streets? Its something every city and town should surely have if any kind of left culture is ever to be rebuilt in this country.
It is the practical entrepreneurship of East End Walks that so impresses me. History, walking, tourism these are everyday experiences that touch millions, merge them with the political and the radical and the potential is obvious. No other human activity however dominates and shapes popular culture right now in the way cooking does. It is a very soft version of multiculturalism to promote the consumption of curry as a symbol of diversity but in the near total absence of any kind of effective movement against racism we should be grateful at least for the opportunities created when such connections are made. Meera Sodha’s Made in India Cooked in Britain gets her essential point across in what she has has rather brilliantly called her cookbook. Inside, treat yourself to beautiful food photography, splendidly scrumptious recipes and without once labouring the point a powerful symbolism of what a modern Britain eats, likes and most of us, UKiP and the other parties demonising immigration notwithstanding, wouldn’t have it any other way no thankyou very much.
Engaging with issues of parenthood and childhood more than almost any other subject reshapes what we mean by the political. The failure to do so narrows not only the relevance of politics but its appeal too, to join or to vote. It Runs in the Family by Frida Berrigan is a powerful testament to both the strengths and weaknesses of a radicalised, liberatarian-socialist politics that puts the conduct of relationships, parenting and children at its very core.
The personal is political? Well if it isn’t what exactly is politics for, or more sharply for whom? Lydia Syson is one author who would have no problem answering that question. A hugely popular writer of teen novels, Lydia’s latest Liberty’s Fire combines the Paris Commune, love and friendship for a thrilling and passionate plot perfect for the teenager in your life. There are precious few modern authors for this age-group with the appeal and ideals of Lydia Syson. However Pushkin Press are past masters at finding classic childrens tales of an earlier era and repackaging them for today’s teen audience, their latest releases include Eric Kastner, best known for his anti-fascist Emil and the Detectives, and his 1931 classic tale of Berlin night-time scrapes Dot & Anton.
Of course the anything-but-idle appeal to our imagination is an essential pre-requisite for plenty of grown-ups too in their search for inspiration beyond the terrain of the everyday and the mainstream. Few British writers have done more to provide this over the past two decades than NIck Hornby. His latest, Funny Girl continues his rich mix of wry humour, neat period observational detail and an unravelling of the predicaments of British masculinity to create a damn good read.
Mikhail Elizarov’s The Librarian is another foreign language gem discovered by Pushkin Press, this time for adults. Soviet era propaganda versus dissent from below, wrapped around a hugely imaginative plot that loses nothing in translation. Or for an an absolute classic read Victor Serge’s recently republished Midnight in the Century. A tale of revolutionary ideals perverted by absolute power, the necessity to resist and the enduring subversive power of hope.Chris Brookmyre fulfils Val McDermid’s recent claim that most crime fiction is left-wing. I’ve been a huge fan of Christopher Brookmyre for years, a guilty pleasure if ever there was one. But Val’s excellent piece helps validate this fascination with the violent criminal underworld of his writing, including the thrilling twist and turns of his latest, Dead Girl Walking. Like others of his ilk the crime is merely the plot around which witty and critical social observation is cast, and in Chris’s case given the additional political sharpness of an unashamed Scottishness too.
And our book of the quarter? The effortlessly feminist writing, the radically egalitarian, the anti-establishment wit, the natural greenery of Get it Together by Zoe Williams would add up to a good read at any time. But during this election campaign it like a resuscitation device for the demoralised and disaffected. Labour should read this and weep as they wonder why a decent chunk of it doesn’t appear anywhere near their manifesto. In easily digestible chapters Zoe dismantles the consensus politics of the same-old-same with a blistering dissection of the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness that holds it together. Carefully researched this is no empty polemic but the kind of politics that Labour’s lost millions hanker after and more often than before find here and there. From a bit of Green, a touch of SNP, a dash of Plaid Cymru, and the odd maverick Labour candidate who has slipped through the party machinery net too for good measure. ‘Get It Together’ is Zoe’s rallying cry in the final chapter, with a matter of weeks to go not too much chance of that this time round but the disorganised Left could yet find itself on the winning side as the perviously impregnable party blocs shake, shatter and fail to poll. This is the book to treat ourselves to as we prepare for the great reckoning to come and the shape of whatever might follow. Brilliant, and funny too, what a rare mix.
Note: No Links in this book review to Amazon, if you can avoid the tax dodger please do so.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, aka Philosophy Football.