Saturday, 13 August 2011

The New Left did not cause the riots

Neil Clark's analysis of the socio-political causes of the riots is typically simplistic and kneejerk. While I agree wholeheartedly where Thatcherism is concerned, I sympathise with the argument that much of it was merely acquisition and not legitimate, thought-out political protest, and I abhor those who think there is something Left-wing about defending McDonald's or market-led film distribution simply because David Starkey or Peter Hitchens don't like them, he is on profoundly shaky ground when he starts playing the Mail/Telegraph card and suggesting some kind of almost mystical, spiritual link between the intellectual-Left's rejection, during the 1960s and 1970s, of the old hierarchical structures of what was considered to be of worth and value, and the elite corruption and social alienation and dislocation - the institutionalised social divisions and poverty - which reached their horrible, inevitable final manifestation this week.

As in much of his previous work, he greatly romanticises the social position of the working class in the Macmillan era, which teaches us the significant lesson that full employment, and free Oxbridge education for a lucky few, is not enough in itself; not if the elite wants to trap the working class within an ordained, fixed culture which was simply no longer enough for their aspirations and desires; not if the majority are given an education only slightly more advanced and challenging than they had had in the pre-war world; not if the state is on the side of those who would freeze them out of their communities for having sexual or emotional desires which, for some, are natural and unavoidable. If that social order was so wonderful, why did millions of working-class people - most of whom had little or nothing to do with the New Left as an intellectual movement, and would barely have recognised such a concept - embrace R&B and rock so enthusiastically? That alone shows that there was dissatisfaction with the certainties Clark longs for - but which he was not alive to experience himself - far beyond the theorems of intellectuals (whom he almost dehumanises in an unsettlingly tabloid way). No matter that these forms have become the establishment culture for the present neoliberal elite; in their day, they were genuine forces for liberation, and the working class could not have lived in "the cultural 1930s with better pay and better job security" (pretty much the 1951-64 government's safety-valve plan; certainly, that seemed a much less quasi-socialist era at the time than it does to retrospective popular historians) forever.

If taken to its logical conclusion, Clark's argument - as would be expected of someone whose idea of a collective, mutual, socialist statement within pop is JJ Barrie's "No Charge" - is that any kind of invention, innovation, challenge or argument within popular culture is in itself a neoliberal, anti-socialist act. Quite apart from also suggesting an apologist (as Clark also is) for the autocratic abuses of power enacted in the name of "socialism" in the former Eastern Bloc, it reveals a cretinous failure to distinguish between the multiple forms within pop - between true, multi-layered, expression of an oppressed class which involves a solidarity with all those struggling throughout the world, and the mere indulgence of the ruling class and its playthings. Clark is wilfully ignoring the difference between Justin Bieber or The Wanted, and the sort of passive, one-way fandom they encourage and are defined by, and the active involvement of - and here I'm confining myself to those who are part of mass pop, and thus a problem for those (whether of Left or Right) who hold autocratic views on culture - Katy B, Chase & Status, Nero, even Tinie Tempah (those who think, pace "Till I'm Gone", that he's automatically selling out if he shakes Prince Harry's hand should consider that there are just as many people who think Prince Harry's selling out if he shakes Tinie Tempah's hand; Peter Hitchens, for whom Clark has expressed admiration in the past, is very clearly among them).

As is an inevitable, inherent condition of Daily Mail Socialism, Clark is lumping elite safety valves and messengers with a form of - however confused, however compromised - genuine expression of an oppressed class's feelings. He is suggesting that the working class have a perfect, ordained role in society, as long as they do not actively challenge the ruling class's preferred forms of expression. How can such a quasi-feudal method of social organisation provide any kind of answer to the urgent social questions asked by the riots, when it failed the test of post-war mass education half a century ago? Clark, who has expressed kneejerk tabloid anti-hip-hop prejudice on previous occasions, is coming dangerously close to siding with David Starkey's grotesque Newsnight comments, where the adoption of black pop (which, as Tupac definitively said, was given this world; it didn't make it) by the mass of the working class is seen as a bigger cause of the riots than decades of institutionalised quasi-apartheid. He detracts from the accuracy of his own attacks on Thatcherism by bringing a wholly understandable desire to break from the narrowness of the other long period of post-war Tory rule into his argument.

As an Old Left partisan - someone who cannot accept, however firm and unquestionable the evidence may be, that his "side" ever abused its power and caused long-term damage to Britain - Clark blames Thatcherism purely on the New Left because he cannot face the truth; that the organised Old Left, as manifested in the trade union movement, created the platform for the Thatcherite reaction by misusing their considerable privileges during the early 1970s, and effectively intimidating Labour into power at a time when they simply weren't ready. The resultant social context - where the Old Left (vast numbers of whom posed, as Enoch Powell correctly stated when defending his fatal intervention in the February 1974 election, no threat whatsoever to his own belief in racial and cultural hierarchies) had left a moderate Tory leadership looking weak, ineffectual and out-thought/fought on every front - has infinitely more to do with the Thatcherite takeover of the Tory party than any amount of academic radicalism and relativism could ever have done. To suggest that Thatcherism did not gain strength and pick up popular support - especially from what used to be called the upper working class, who were its greatest electoral foundation stone - as a result of Old Left belief that they owned Britain (and were as determined to keep out those who were facing great working-class struggles in other parts of the world comparable to those in Britain in the 1930s, or the liberation musics of working-class movements worldwide, as "scabs" or "blacklegs" from their own movement), and never needed to compromise on any issue, is as deluded as it would be to suggest that the desire of millions of servicemen in the 1940s to vote Labour once the war had been won had nothing to do with the entrenched attitudes of the officer class and military establishment.

It is perfectly true that New Labour combined elements of New Left cultural thinking and Thatcherite economics, but to suggest that because this happened in the 1990s there must have been some inherent, organic connection between the two ideologies from the start, is a form of historical retcon - one of many tendencies in Clark's writing that serious historians (among whom Clark is not numbered) would never indulge in. The Thatcherite movement had little, at heart, to do with culture, certainly much less than the Blairite movement did; the increased dominance of pop culture (through media deregulation) and decline in the assumed hierarchical position of high culture (through the reduction in school funding for concert and museum visits, etc.) which have come to be regarded as among its key legacies were merely incidental aftereffects, not central policies. It was purely and simply about crushing British socialism and marginalising those within the Tory party who were seen as having appeased it, not about spreading within the Tory party the ideologies associated with the then-new universities and polytechnics. Keith Joseph, in 1975, would have had no more time for those views than Norman St John Stevas would have.

Clark would no doubt assume that Thatcher's deregulation of British broadcasting increased the amount of airtime given to the ideologies and values of his hated New Left, which of course would show how little he knows about modern British history; the old structure, which he praises only for its heritage dramas and Perry & Croft sitcoms (loved in vast numbers by GB75-ers in the actual 1970s, as opposed to the xerox of the era he half-remembers from childhood), also allowed New Leftists to reach the largest possible audience through radical drama and documentary. The Broadcasting Act of 1990 was intended specifically to marginalise and freeze out to the point of oblivion this New Left influence, not to get rid of "hearty family entertainment". Dad's Army and Upstairs, Downstairs are still endlessly revived; Days of Hope and The Price of Coal are only now being made available commercially, and BBC Four rarely represents that era as it did when many/most people couldn't yet receive it. Clark's belief in cross-class politics - which would be perversely touching were it not so dangerous - means that even when he praises something that was fundamentally good, he does so for all the wrong reasons.

There are multiple reasons and multiple causes for the riots, which do indeed reveal a profound corruption and desolation throughout vast swathes of British society (which is why Clark's simplistic, wrong-headed "blame every single aspect of the modern world" rhetoric is a million times more enraging than someone blithely insisting that nothing is wrong at all). It should be obvious that every single suggestion Cameron has made will, if anything, make things even worse, will merely increase social exclusion, thus alienation, thus despair, thus the platform for something like this to happen over and over again. But Clark would, in all likelihood, agree with Cameron that Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger are somehow "to blame" - (literally) shoot the messenger, shoot the messenger, shoot the messenger, you might as well have blamed 2Tone and the existence of the 7-inch single 30 years ago - and that is where I differ as profoundly from him as from Cameron himself. Institutionalised nostalgia and anti-modernism will get us no further than Cameron's headline-chasing short-termism. Only a more profound change will get us anywhere - but the society that change would lead to would have to be at least as different from the society of 1961 as from the society of 2011. Anything else is institutionalised lying and delusion, as much so as any of the political ideologies and institutional inequalities and unfairnesses which led to the riots.

Daily Mail Socialism is no more a way out than Cameron's straight-down-the-line Mailism. It is important to remember that, at this low point of British life and society, and to regard Clark's rhetoric as merely the flipside of Cameron's papering-over-the-cracks populism, rather than any kind of answer. For that, we will have to look far beyond. To, indeed, a reinvented and re-radicalised - and de-Blairised - version of the New Left. For all that movement's eventual faults, a belief in the liberating power of oppressed classes expressing themselves through mass culture, and in the global unity of the proletariat, is far more likely to offer some kind of way out - of the nihilism and desperation and disenfranchisement which was so horribly manifested this week - than magic wand politics and semi-feudalism. Ed Miliband should listen, carefully.