Monday, 23 March 2015

Labour's weaknesses

Much is said of Ed Miliband. Many people say that he is not prime ministerial, that he is awkward and even a second kitchen seems to be a severe impediment to Labour's electoral prospects. The historical revisionists warily point to Labour figures of the past, likening him to Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. The parallels, they say, are stark. Both were not charismatic men. Foot was also prone to abstruse theorising. (Miliband came up with a spate of wonkish policies to begin with.) Kinnock was slightly awkward and, like Miliband appears to be now, was hounded by the popular press in a   series of malicious ad hominem attacks. Despite the historical parallels, if either Foot or Kinnock were leaders now I am certain that Labour would be enjoying a comfortable lead. Whatever you said about Labour through the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, you could never accuse them of not sticking to their guns. In fact, the conclusion everyone has drawn about those times is that they were far too intransigent. The economic system was been redrawn radically, globalisation was been set afoot, protectionist industries were been either shut or privatised and in Thatcher the Conservatives had a tenacious and charismatic leader. Labour seemed doomed because of their refusal to compromise and in their stoic persistence to advocate radical policies (such as nuclear disarmament). However, if either a Kinnock or Foot figure came along now - alongside a united and committed party - they would rightly rewrite the current narrative. Labour suffers because of the way they try to appease everyone else. With the kind of mindset Labour had in opposition throughout the 80s, and with a similar set of policies, their views would resonate with voters.

The fact is that history has been rewritten so as to accommodate ideological goals. The financial crisis of 2007/08 arose after the housing market and Wall Street crashed in the US. Because of globalisation, this had a knock-on effect in Europe. There is one word to explain the financial crisis: deregulation. Gordon Brown, leader of Labour at the time, saved the economy from crashing (which was an imminent fear at the time). The Conservatives and David Cameron come along and blame the entire crisis on Labour's profligate spending. The have managed to rewrite history on this matter. It is patently clear, to begin with, that this is a global crisis, not a domestic one. It is even more shocking to know that the bankers complicit in the crash have not been brought to account. (Granted, the banks and the markets were too lightly regulated by Labour at the time.) What David Cameron has done is to use this anti-Keynesian rhetoric to decimate the welfare state. Their politics are to the right of Thatcher. Their utopian ideal is one of flourishing non-regulated business and commerce. What is rankling a few people is that the current Labour party don't challenge this narrative. Worse still, they commit themselves to a programme of austerity.

This is the way the current general election should be framed: big vs. small state. This is the big question. Do you want, on the one hand, Osbourne's neo-liberal utopia? A privatised NHS, no social services and extravagantly rich bankers? (It must be noted that, when people talk about economic growth in the UK, it is only a small elite that is been privileged.) Or the other alternative is: more equality, welfare, a stimulus programme (which has worked in the US) and a reliable NHS. (It must be noted that Labour have been too black-and-white when campaigning about the NHS. A lot of scare tactics have been used.) The Conservatives claimed to cut the deficit by this general election. The reality is that they it will take them until 2020. (Gordon Brown wanted a slower rate of austerity, which would cut the deficit roughly by 2020. This is now what the Conservatives are essentially doing, despite decrying Brown at the time.) There are a lot of painful cuts to come. The only dogma is this: cut and slice everything until we no longer have the deficit. Beyond that, there is no vision or ethos to the Cameron project (in the way that Thatcher had one, for instance.) Labour should counteract this dogma by advocating a stimulus programme and to prevent the wholesale destruction of the welfare state. The welfare state is been cut just so as to justify a right-wing dogma. (It must be noted that Cameron and Osbourne advocated cuts even before the financial crisis.) This is the way the election should be framed. Instead, we are mainly discussing EU, immigration and the rise of fringe parties.

Ed Miliband seems to be more comfortable from a dissenting position. He is the son of a Marxist professor, after all. Labour and Miliband have a boost every time there's talk of hedge funds and tax evasion. The only thing that Miliband can do, the perception is, is to attack banks and financial systems from a position of dissent. His qualities to lead a party in government is cast into doubt. Still, Miliband and Balls have a longer experience in parliament than either Cameron or Osbourne. It does seem, though, that the Labour party is too fractious and disunited to be a successful governing party.  
The reality is that the political system is broken. This is why we are heading for the first successive hung parliament since 1910. No-one trusts the main parties anymore. People are bored. I was appalled when Miliband ruled out a coalition with the SNP (their only real chance of forming a coalition and accruing a majority). The SNP stand for old Labour social democratic principles. They are forthright and they are not spineless. A lot of people reject the idea of a Scottish nationalist party in westminster. Again, the principle reason why Miliband ruled out the idea of a coaliton is one of appeasement. If he did commit to it, there would be an uproar and the Conservative media would chastise him.

And the reality is that Labour might not well govern come May because of their lethargy in Scotland. It was just taken for granted that they would hang onto all the Scottish seats. Scots are fed up, want to cling on to social services and institutions and resent Labour weaknesses.

Conservatives should be in the mire now. Labour have had a slender lead in the polls for this long just by default. It goes without saying that austerity is unpopular (beyond the charge of dogma held by people like me). The Conservatives were expecting this and are even surprised. They are grateful that the Labour party is in the state it is in now. The Conservatives are leading the country into very treacherous territory. They are cutting the size of the state to an unprecedented level and 'rewarding' voters with lowering taxes. Why lower taxes at a time of recession? The great failing of Miliband, it seems, is that he is too weak.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The virtues of idiosyncrasy

Most of the fiction around is very much the same - it is anodyne, bland and has very little to say. The honed crisp writing style which is fostered by creative writing courses is celebrated. Stylistically and thematically, this writing is published because of its formulaic nature. An idiosyncratic style is perceived as being counter to the cause. As a result, the literary market place is cluttered with tepid works with no recognizable authorial voice and no interesting commentary.

I think that one's idiosyncrasies should be celebrated as a virtue. I would say that it's better to have an idiosyncratic take on literature, philosophy, history etc. than a standardised educated take. An 'educated' person amasses facts, but doesn't reproduce these facts in a new and unheralded way. He accepts common truisms and dogmas, but doesn't use his own individuality to synthesise them and reproduce a new alternative take on the state of events.

An idiosyncratic approach takes on its material and looks at it afresh from a new perspective. What once appeared idiosyncratic is often mimicked by legions of admirers and a new 'school' of writing emerges. As a result, these styles are prescribed by creative writing courses and preached as gospel.

A society should foster idiosyncrasies. It should let them come out into the open. We often suppress off-the-cuff remarks in the event that we may appear eccentric or awkward. British society is especially rigid and bound to social codes. People take on roles. They play-act. It is often difficult to loosen up and allow one's own idiosyncrasies to come out into the open. Culture is especially bereft without them. 

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

500th post

Guess what? This is my 500th post!

Have you been reading this blog since 2007? Stuck by me all these years? Happy to have done so? Despondent?

I will stubbornly write on. And on. And on. Whether you like it or not. If you do enjoy dropping by, I will write for your delectation.

Many ideas bubbling in my head. I know what my next 5 books will be (3 novels, 1 memoir, 1 essay collection). In the past I would have these wild fantasies - 'oh boy, I'm going to write all these books - I'll get them published, too.' I have a pretty good idea of where I am going with these, though. I won't get too down if they don't get them published, either. (I have to be realistic - they probably won't.)

Most of these posts are lapidary in character, granted. Usually toss them off quickly. The idea for the essay collection is: revisit all the topics I've covered here, flesh them out and give them the kind of effort/attention I would to one of the essays I write for uni.

Stick around, my friend. Now, let's clink glasses, down the champagne and celebrate!

Sunday, 8 March 2015


Crumb (1994) is a documentary about the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. A highly eccentric character, he is open and candid as the director here, Terry Zwigoff, was a close friend. Like his highly revealing autobiographical comics, Crumb really bears his soul. His comics are openly misogynistic, racist and twisted - as such, it is easy to hold a grudge against him for any of these things. Crumb caught onto the hippie zeitgeist - with characters involving mystic charlatans, drug-addled weirdos and sex-starved bimbos - and he became a renowned countercultural figure. Yet his work is at its most compelling when he is his own subject. The reason why this film is so great - and so moving - is that it follows the same prerogative: an unflinchingly honest portrayal of its subject, warts and all.

What becomes clear is that Robert Crumb suffers a great deal. He says 'If I don't draw, I feel suicidal. But, then, I sometimes feel suicidal when I draw too.' It is clear that his comics have therapeutic function - to exorcise demons. (This can be taken literally. Many of his comics involve sexual fantasies about strange Goya-like bird creatures.) In this process, he does not censor himself in the slightest. He has a predilection for robust women with long legs. These are legion in his comics and more often than not they are submissive to fragile, neurotic men.

All this was borne out of years of frustration and alienation. Rejected by women throughout his teens, he withdrew into his sexual fantasies. One of his comics chronicling this is detailed in the film: how a girl he was infatuated with went off with some stud. Robert's misogyny is borne out of a deep-rooted rejection and alienation from other women.  Alongside fervent admirers, a few critics of Crumb's work appear in the film. They contend that, whatever the therapeutic value of the comics, that is dangerous to put them out in the public domain.

Crumb came from a broken family. His father beat all three of his sons on a regular basis. We meet his two brothers, who are even stranger (and more disturbed) than Robert. His brother Charles, who introduced Robert to comic books when they were both young children, is so sedated by his medication that he drawls and has several teeth missing. He still lives with his mother. His brother Maxon, also an artist, lives in a ramshackle hotel. He begs for money on the streets whilst sitting on a bed of nails.

The reason why the film is so moving is that the abuse inflicted by their father clearly disturbed Charles and Maxon to such an extent that they became maladjusted. Like Robert, they have unusual sexual fetishes, except that they are stranger. Maxon gropes women in the streets. Charles, we learn, has homosexual pedophilic tendencies. He managed to suppressed them and he remained a virgin. Yet he was tormented his entire life and was terrified that his mother might find out. Following the film's completion, we learn, he committed suicide. Despite the way both Maxon and Charles turned out, Robert became a success.

In many ways, this film is an image of an inverted American dream. Their father was a marine in the Second World War. He wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps - become a marine, be virile, manly, responsible and punctilious. He wrote a book entitled 'Training People Effectively.' The family grew in 50s suburbia and in the ferment of sexual repression and rigid social mores. Following the horrors of the Second World War, youngsters were subjected to a tawdry image of American suburban happiness and conformity. This partly led to the rebellion of the sixties and the psychosis of Robert's art. And Crumb's father was horrified when he saw how his children turned out: shy, nerdy, maladjusted and strange.

Another issue raised about the films is: is Robert's work art or porn? Several talking heads are featured and they take divergent views. The most notorious is the art critic Robert Hughes, who bombastically compares Crumb to Brughel and Goya. Other voices reject the racism, the nastiness and the misogyny. One dissenter mentions an overwhelmingly disturbing cartoon involving incest. It features a 1950s nuclear family. It has all the qualities of satire but, the critic argues, Crumb is getting off on his material and ended up producing porn. What they all agree on is that he is very technically gifted.

They interview Crumb's wife, who says 'he draws his id.' We should take Crumb as a portal to the dark side of its subject and accept that what we encounter isn't always savoury. It is a masterful study of a broken home, a tormented artist, the vagaries of sex and porn and the therapeutic function of art.

Sunday, 1 March 2015


When Descartes looked into a piece of wax, he asked himself whether or not what he saw was real. Descartes took to be untrue and unreal anything that is not logically plausible. We can be sure of our own consciousness and our own existence. Hence, that is the only thing we can truly be sure of,

Our mode of consciousness allows us to ask these questions. Because we are self-aware of our own consciousness and reasoning abilities, this to some degree differentiates us from other animals who don't have the faculty of reason. We have the ability, like Descartes, to look back on ourselves and ask 'is this real?'

For all the talk of determinism which is very popular these days, this still does no detract from the beuaty of consciousness. By being conscious. we can see, feel, think, etc. We can even be self-aware of our mind being deterministic. We can be self-reflexive and say 'I am not in control of my own desires - I am just driven by a series of impulses,' even though our faculty of reason allows us to reach the said conclusion.

We are in fact multiple selves. We constantly changing. We keep adding experiences - sensory, intellectual - and this is added to our storehouse of knowledge. Yet we are deeply contradictory. We can't convincingly ascertain 'I am such and such a person.' We are ultimately an amalgamation of different figments. Descartes should have said 'We think, therefore I am.' We are really comprised of a multitude of selves. They always seem to be at war with each other. That's why we struggle to reach conclusions. The faculty of reason struggles to wade through these conflicting thoughts and emotions and to synthesise a convincing argument.

Consciousness is a universal human attribute. We should be thankful that we can be conscious and that we can perceive such a wide range of phenomena. That's why being bored in such a rich and variegated world is such a crime. In many ways, advertisements and fads that are constantly thrust in our face constantly divert us from the experience of consciousness, reflection and self-awareness.