Keeping Your Head Above Water In London
James Bloodworth’s rather moving valediction to the capital, written in 2011, on the sixth anniversary of 7/7. James’s personal circumstances have changed quite considerably (he now has a job back in London) since he wrote this and we first posted it here at Shiraz.
Dedicated to those who lost their lives to religious fascism on this day six (now nine) years ago
Yesterday I moved from London to a place called Burnham-on-sea, a banal coastal town in the South West of England where they still sell Donald McGill-style postcards in the summertime. I moved because my family live here; and with family comes a degree of financial security. I still intend to spend much of my time in London, but I cannot afford to live there any longer. Not that is, until I find gainful, paid employment. Getting a job is notoriously difficult for the unemployed at present. A man I recently sat next to at a recruitment fair told me and others he had applied for 10,000 jobs in the past two years. He was almost certainly exaggerating – overdoing one’s own misfortune seems to be a particularly British characteristic – or perhaps disastrous at writing job applications, but nonetheless, the fact that many present were prepared to believe him speaks volumes about the state of the job market.
As it happened, I was able to land a job with my previous employer, Royal Mail. Getting the job proved to be the easy part. More difficult was getting sufficient hours to pay the rent as well as buy enough to eat. Being a Postman today is a very different job to what it used to be. Almost all new contracts are temporary and based on 25-30 hour weeks; and the amount of junk a postman is required to carry around on his back in the form of advertising is rising exponentially year-on-year. That was my impression at least. Unable to eke out anything other than an extremely meagre existence in London on £200 a week, I left the position after only two weeks in the job.
The part of London life that is perhaps the biggest burden is the cost of rent. Being shown around dingy, mould-infested bedsits only to be told you must pay £100 a week for the pleasure of living there is soul destroying; especially when it comes with the prospect of giving half your weekly pay to someone whose “portfolio” ensures they will never have to sleep in mould infested dwellings, nor break their back for £200 a week. With very little chance of ever owning a house, those with inadequate living quarters must instead navigate the rental free-market, where at the end of every tenancy getting your deposit back can be like trying to extract teeth from a bad tempered dog. Life in London can be hugely enjoyable, but it can also leave you feeling a little like Gordon Comstock, the character in George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his living conditions grim, his job boring, and his impecuniousness a frequent source of humiliation. The difference in my case is that I am not actively trying to sink to the lowest levels of society.
London famously attracts its fair share of those attempting to “make it” in one sense or another. As someone who has recently completed a course in journalism at City University, I am fairly sure I fit into this category of person myself. Although fully aware that moving to London would not open some golden path into the journalistic profession, I did view it as the correct place to be, which it undeniably is, most of all perhaps because of the opportunities to meet people you only get in the capital.
One thing you soon start to notice in London is the extraordinary extent to which everything is about “connections”, not least in journalism. The major newspaper titles no longer advertise positions, instead preferring to find employees who are in the loop, so to speak. Most graduates instead pursue internship placements, working anything up to a year for free on a major title, performing menial tasks such as tea-making in the almost millenarian hope that one day they may get the chance to contribute something worthwhile to the paper.
Professional journalism has always been something of a middle and upper class pursuit of course. The term “BBC accent” was coined during the 20th century to describe a recognisable Home Counties diction the corporation now likes to pretend most of its employees do not in fact possess. What certainly has changed is that most of those successfully entering the profession today have postgraduate qualifications and lengthy internships under their belts, affordable only to the relatively affluent; and unlike a Home Counties accent, something which cannot be faked. The resulting journalism that
invades my own cramped bedroom every night via the television could perhaps most aptly be described as the political establishment talking to itself.
If you can handle all of this and come out of it with your sanity you may be rewarded with a job, or you may not be. What will almost certainly be the case is there will be less in the boss’s pot with which to pay you, the worker, whether in the newspaper business or elsewhere. In hard times employee’s wages inevitably take the hit before chief executive final salary pension schemes; and if that means newsrooms becoming increasingly stuffed with wealthy individuals who can partake in journalism as a leisure activity, then so be it.
The days always seemed to go by at a faster pace in London. What I mean to say is that the time actually feels like it is moving faster. I think because so much of each day is spent under the ground scuttling along, I would say at great speed, but often at a crawl, on an overcrowded tube train. The conditions often bring out the worst in people, myself included. Just the other day I got into a quarrel with a man over some trivial thing (he bumped into me as I was walking round a corner), resulting in a situation that could quite easily have resulted in a physical confrontation, foolish on my part though that would have been.
It was of course in Keep the Aspidistra Flying that Gordon Comstock declared his own personal war on affluence. Riding on the Docklands Light Railway first thing in the morning having practically embalmed my liver the night before, sat next to the businessmen with calculators working out their cash flows on the way to Canary Wharf, I have gotten, I like to think, a small insight into Gordon Comstock’s disdain for the capitalist vulgarities he sees around him, oscillating between self-admiration and self-loathing.
Six years ago today a group of deranged fanatics declared not a war on affluence, but a war on London. Without dragging up tired clichés about “never forgetting” (although you shouldn’t) and lionising the “spirit of the blitz”, remembering that 52 innocent people were murdered for a fascistic ideology puts my own London-induced neuroticism into perspective. Despite his (to me anyway) disagreeable political views, Samuel Johnson was right to say that “by seeing London, [he had] seen as much of life as the world can show”, and it was this that so disgusted the murderers of 7/7 – the sheer diversity of life in the capital, whether represented by “those slags dancing around” (as some other would-be murderers called them), or the insufficiently pious Muslims who practiced at their local Mosques.
Returning to Orwell, Gordon Comstock always had to share his room with aspidistras which continued to thrive despite his mistreatment of them. Despite what happened on that day in July 2005, London continues to thrive, and is a place I will return to live soon, I hope.
By James Bloodworth (reblogged from Left Foot Forward)
Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has just delivered his response in the House of Commons to foreign secretary William Hague’s statement on the crisis in Ukraine. The statements from both sides were fairly predictable – both condemned Russian provocations – but the Labour foreign secretary was right to press the government on what action it plans to take in order to pressure Russia into pulling back from Crimea. This was especially important considering the revelations yesterday evening that the coalition is seeking to protect the City of London from any punitive EU action against Russia.
But what about the rest of the British left? Well, here we find a wide range of positions, from the Stop the War Coalition’s apparent attempt to pin the entire blame for the Crimea affair on the West to Left Unity’s somewhat abstract and blanket opposition to “foreign military intervention” and “foreign political and economic intervention”.
The Labour Party
Douglas Alexander told the House of Commons that there could be “no justification for this dangerous and unprovoked military incursion”. In terms of resolving the crisis, he insisted that firm measures were needed to apply pressure to Russia, saying that the international community needed to “alter the calculus of risk in the minds of the Russian leaders by…making clear to the Russians the costs and consequences of this aggression”.
The shadow foreign secretary also mentioned the coalition’s apparent unwillingness to upset the City for the sake of Ukrainian territorial integrity, saying he was “afraid the United Kingdom’s words will count for little without more credence being given to these options and a willingness at least to countenance their use in the days and weeks ahead”.
Lindsey German of the Stop the War Coalition and Counterfire has written a lengthy 10-point post in which she tries to paint the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a rational response to NATO/EU provocations. There is a lot that’s wrong with the piece, and you could do worse than read this take down of German’s article in the Economist.
“Who is the aggressor? The obvious answer seems to be that it is Russia, but that is far from the whole picture…Ever since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the European Union (EU) and Nato have been intent on surrounding Russia with military bases and puppet regimes sympathetic to the West, often installed by ‘colour revolutions’.”
Much clearer in its stance has been the Socialist Workers’ Party (surprisingly perhaps), which has condemned much of what has been taken as read by Stop the War Coalition and Counterfire as “Moscow propaganda”:
“Those who claim Yanukovych’s overthrow was a “fascist coup” are parroting Moscow propaganda. He fell because the section of the oligarchy who had previously backed him withdrew their support…Putin claims to be acting in defense of Ukraine’s Russian speakers—a majority in Crimea and widespread in southern and eastern Ukraine. But beyond a parliamentary vote in Kiev to strip Russian of its status as an official language, there is little evidence of any real threat to Russian speakers.” – Alex Callinicos, Socialist Worker
The Alliance of Workers’ Liberty has published a statement on its website from the University of Russian University Workers, which is unequivocal in its denunciation of Russian aggression:
“Declaration of the central council of the ‘University Solidarity’ union of Russian university workers:
“The central council of the “University Solidarity” union expresses its concern at the situation caused by the decision of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of Russia on 1 March 2014, granting the president of Russia the right to use Russian armed force on the territory of Ukraine.
“We believe that this decision does not help the defense of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine and that it promises grave consequences. Support to the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine can be given by other means, by the means of state and popular diplomacy, by economic cooperation, by human rights.”
Encouragingly, the Fourth International has also condemned what it calls the “foreign policy adventurism of the current regime” in Moscow:
“War has begun. With the aim of protecting and increasing the assets of the oligarchs in Russia and in Yanukovich’s coterie, Russia’s leadership has undertaken an invasion of Ukraine. This aggression threatens catastrophic consequences for the Ukrainian and Russian peoples – most especially for the population of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Ukraine’s southeastern industrial regions…Today, the struggle for freedom in Russia is a struggle against the foreign policy adventurism of the current regime, which seeks collusion in forestalling its own end. The RSD calls on all sincere left and democratic forces to organize anti-war protests.” – Statement from the Russian Socialist Movement
Left Unity is an interesting one, and appears to draw a (false) moral equivalence between unwanted Russian military intervention in Ukraine and economic assistance requested by the Ukrainian government to support its ailing economy:
“The continuing political and economic crisis in Ukraine is taking a dangerous military turn.
“Left Unity takes the position that there can only be a political solution to this crisis and that neither foreign military intervention nor foreign political and economic intervention provide the answers to Ukraine’s complex problems.
“Whether under the flag of US, NATO, Russia or the European Union, military intervention only ever makes the situation many times worse. So it is in Ukraine. The West’s hypocrisy in condemning Russia for breaking international law is breathtaking: nevertheless, Russian troops hold no solution to the crisis.”
At the more extreme end, the Communist Party takes the Moscow line that the Ukrainian Euromaidan movement is ‘fascist’:
“The failure of EU leaders to uphold the 21 February Agreement on early elections has given sanction to a coup d’etat against a democratically elected government that threatens to destabilise the country and sets dangerous precedents for the future. The open involvement of US, EU and NATO leaders in the build up to the coup exposes it as part of the drive to change the geo-political balance in Europe in ways that threaten security and peace in Europe and the World… The Communist Party of Britain pledges its support to the Communist Party of Ukraine in its resistance to fascism, predatory capitalism and imperialism.” – Robert Griffiths, CP general secretary
…as does Workers’ Power:
“The bourgeois nationalist parties have taken power in an anti-democratic coup, using the fascist paramilitaries and rebellious police forces. Workers should make it clear they do not recognize the legitimacy of this government, its orders, the laws, and decisions of the counter-revolutionary Rada…The working class should not wait for outside intervention from Russia, nor allow the reactionary, undemocratic new regime to consolidate its power with the May 25 elections, held at gunpoint.”
As for the Twittersphere:
And on the right…
James Bloodworth (writing at Obliged to Offend in December 2011):
Instead of celebrating … the left should reflect on what a
pig’s ear it’s made of the past 30 years
Ever since Margaret Thatcher stopped appearing in public due to poor health, the
fit and proper reaction to her eventual exit from the earthly realm has been
discussed with increasing regularity by the left.
That rolling news will gloss over her legacy with the empty platitudes of the obsequious is entirely predictable. Nor will it surprise many to see the leading lights of the Labour
Party queuing up to shower the former Prime Minister with praise.
There are, however, plenty of us who haven’t forgotten the lives she destroyed, the
dictators she championed or the unmitigated social disaster set in motion by her
particular brand of finance capitalism. We do not feel the need to do what many
formerly of the left now do, and parrot the dictum that we are ‘all Thatcherites
now’ (just a hint, but when a person says neo-liberal capitalism is ‘inevitable’
what they really mean is that it is desirable). Many of us are not, and never
will be Thatcherites, and we will continue to feel no shame in believing that
there is more to life than the winner-takes-all capitalism she so
unapologetically championed during her lifetime.
There are of course also those, on the other side of the fence, who view Thatcher’s eventual demise as an opportunity to get one over on her family, her friends, and her supporters
in a way that was not possible in an era when her ideas triumphed so
emphatically. In this regard, Margaret Thatcher’s death is not only to be
greeted with sullen contempt, but is to be actively celebrated.
The idea of getting back at this almost mythical figure for the numerous defeats she
inflicted on the left is strong motivation for those planning to crack open the
Champers on learning of her passing. Considering that during her reign she
trounced us at every opportunity, revelled in her victories, and then did it
again, the desire to see the back of the woman is perhaps understandable, even
if the outright celebration of her passing is, to my mind at least, taking
things a bit far.
What we on the left would do well to remember, however,
is that the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher are not going to be dented, let alone
killed-off by the departure of their most famous living embodiment. ‘All the
forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come,’ Victor
Hugo once said, and if the left is to recover from the tremendous setbacks it
has suffered during the past 30 years, it is the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher
that must be replaced, not the worn-out figure of an elderly lady.
Rather than celebrating the death of a human being, even a not
particularly endearing one, the left should instead examine with
clear-sightedness where it has gone wrong, how it has behaved and how it can do
better – and boy, can it do better. Considering the complete failure to make any
political inroads since the 2008 banking crash, this should be clearer today
Time and energy spent celebrating the deaths of those who
popularise ideas we dislike is time that would be better spent popularising our
own ideas. With this in mind, morbid celebrations are better left to the
psychologically unhinged. The media already does an effective job in portraying
us as morally detached from the values of the average person; they certainly
don’t need us serving up ammunition on a plate for them.
By James Bloodworth. Cross-posted from Obliged to Offend
I don’t know about you, but before I tuned into the Channel Four show I had no idea what a big fat gypsy wedding was. I assumed it must be something to do with gypsies and weddings, obviously, but I failed to grasp why such a program would ever make it on to television. Lots of people get married, I reasoned, so why should a gypsy wedding be more deserving of airtime than anything else.
So I did it. I tuned in. And now everything has become a little clearer. Despite the assurances of Channel Four that the program is about combating the negative tabloid portrayal of gypsies, the whole thing stuck to the script more comprehensively than a Daily Mail editorial. Smashing stereotypes? Hardly. More like hammering them home with a sledgehammer and a stick of dynamite.
While I am arguably too young to delve deep into the archives of television history (I am 29), I struggle to recall a time when so much of the weekly schedule was filled with programmes designed to allow us, the public, to look down with disdain on other, more marginal groups; and usually under a pseudo-progressive guise of empathising with those on the receiving end of our spiteful laughter.
I do not wish to single out Channel Four here. They are, after all, only commissioning programs they believe (and correctly, in the case of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings) will be popular. Look elsewhere if you prefer. Turn on the Jeremy Kyle show; watch one of Ricky Gervais’s recent offerings; listen to a Frankie Boyle joke; dig out the Little Britain DVDs. Wherever you look this type of “entertainment” has gradually taken over our television screens, pumping up the self-esteem of the middle classes by giving a sly kick to those clinging on to the lower rungs of the social ladder.
Oh it’s just a joke, I can hear you say. Lighten up. You’re taking things too seriously.
So why the pretence of empathy then? Why not simply make television that unapologetically mocks the poor, the deformed, the degenerate and the non-conformist?
For one thing that would require an admission that under all the politically correct plumage, we are perhaps not the welcoming and tolerant a society we smugly and repeatedly profess to be. There are political implications, too. Is popular support for David Cameron’s welfare reforms really about fair play and “common sense”, or have we become so used to viewing those less fortunate than ourselves as the equivalent of another species that we no longer even care what happens to them? The London riots? “Sheer criminality”; the teenagers on Jeremy Kyle? “Chavs”. Travellers? “Gypos”. Simple, comforting, and most importantly perhaps, a way to feel better about ourselves in an era where fatalism has replaced the idea that a better world is possible.
The thing which seems to provoke the heartiest laughter and the greatest mirth of all, I am gradually discovering, is any attempt by the disenfranchised to emulate those more fortunate than themselves. The mock-celebrity names the council estate Mothers give to their children; the scantily clad gypsy girls copying the provocative dance moves of their favourite pop stars; the transsexuals expressing outwardly what they feel inside; the overweight people trying desperately to look how they’ve been told they are supposed to look. How dare they? we collectively seem to ask. Don’t they know their station?
Laughing in the face of the vulnerable seems to have caught on at about the time we finally lost all control over what happens at the other end of society. The global rich no longer listen to us, so instead we spend our time looking downwards and sneering at easier targets. Perhaps we recognise something of ourselves in the powerless, and giving them a good kicking is a sort of masochistic exercise, not unlike electing politicians such Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Whatever the reason, it seems the television equivalent of the freak show is here to stay.
The riots of August 2011 should have put paid to the idea that we could go on laughing at the underclass forever. It didn’t though; and if you want a picture of the future, you could do worse than imagine a Vicky Pollard-type figure being hurt and humiliated publicly – forever.
By James Bloodworth, cross-posted from Obliged to Offend
Workers at Primark in Northern Ireland have voted overwhelmingly for strike action after the company attempted to impose a pay freeze on its shop staff for the second consecutive year. Primark’s staff are paid just £6.84 an hour, yet in the past two years the company has seen its profits soar to an estimated £644 million. Union reps are meeting next week with strike action in February looking increasingly likely.The fact that a call for industrial action by staff at Primark has made the news at all is testament to how organised workers’ struggle has become something of a rarity in recent times. This is reflected in the trade unions themselves, where there has been a steady decline in members in the last 30 years. Six-and-a-half million people were in a trade union in 2010, down from a peak of around 13 million in the late 1970s. These figures also conceal a large discrepancy between public and private sector membership, with only 14 per cent of private sector employees being members of a union compared with 56 per cent of those in the public sector.
Media superficiality would have it that trade unions are little more than a quaint irrelevancy to 21st century life. The economic downturn has added to the scorn heaped on anyone viewed as rocking the boat by popularising the notion that the burden of the financial crisis is being shared equally. “Get on with it” perhaps best describes the attitude of most of the print media to discontented workers; and in the case of the Primark dispute bosses see nothing wrong with telling staff to meekly accept their lot – despite the fact that there undeniably is a great deal of money swilling around.
This attitude is not confined to the bosses of Primark, either. In Britain’s lightly regulated labour market employers increasingly have the power to do what they want to a degree unthinkable since the First World War. A recent report by the Fair Pay Network (FPN) – a coalition of charities and non-governmental organisations including Oxfam and the Trades Union Congress – and published by the Independent revealed that Britain’s largest supermarket chains are paying their staff poverty wages while making huge profits and raising executives’ salaries.
Not only has years of anti-union rhetoric affected how large companies treat their workers, but it has also had a discernible impact on the Left, which increasingly spurns trade union activity in favour of occupations, protests and flash mobs. The idea of autonomy is at the heart of the tactical switch; and the sacrifice and solidarity of the strike feels grey and outdated compared to the free-for-all of the tent city and the high-octane exertions of the Black Bloc. Little do they realise it, but even today’s protesters have adopted some of the commitmentless individualism of Thatcher-Blairism.
The political assault on trade union activity has been reignited recently, with Boris Johnson, a Mayor elected with the first preferences of just 19 per cent of his electorate, calling for a minimum turnout threshold on industrial action ballots. Others fantasise about going further, openly musing on whether “we” (meaning in reality society’s top 1 per cent) should permit strikes to happen at all.
Scratch an anti-trade union politician, however, and you will find the same contempt for democracy that has in the past lobbied against everything from the right of working people to vote to the right of the poor to receive medical treatment. For many the workplace already remains one of the few areas of life completely untouched by democratic accountability. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development(CIPD) found that only a third of British workers were engaged in any form of dialogue with their bosses at their place of work, another third were largely “disengaged”, while the remaining third were indifferent.
It is not as if the law as it stands comes down in favour of those democratically withdrawing their labour, either. There is in reality no such thing as the right to strike in law in Britain. Walk-outs are only possible because unions have immunity from any subsequent claims for damages.
Extending democracy beyond the confines of 19th century liberalism will not be done by erecting a tent in one of capitalism’s bustling metropolises, nor by inconveniencing shoppers in Regent Street. It will come through the tireless and unglamorous struggle of those, like the workers at Primark, who realise that by standing together they can claw a little back from those who would make off with everything given half the chance.
Trade unions are by no means perfect, but if the left is to become relevant again it must rediscover the notion that social justice begins at work.
By James Bloodworth at Obliged to Offend:
Instead of celebrating when Thatcher dies, the left should reflect on what a pig’s ear it’s made of the past 30 years
There are, however, plenty of us who haven’t forgotten the lives she destroyed, the dictators she championed or the unmitigated social disaster set in motion by her particular brand of finance capitalism. We do not feel the need to do what many formerly of the left now do, and parrot the dictum that we are ‘all Thatcherites now’ (just a hint, but when a person says neo-liberal capitalism is ‘inevitable’ what they really mean is that it is desirable). Many of us are not, and never will be Thatcherites, and we will continue to feel no shame in believing that there is more to life than the winner-takes-all capitalism she so unapologetically championed during her lifetime.
There are of course also those, on the other side of the fence, who view Thatcher’s eventual demise as an opportunity to get one over on her family, her friends, and her supporters in a way that was not possible in an era when her ideas triumphed so emphatically. In this regard, Margaret Thatcher’s death is not only to be greeted with sullen contempt, but is to be actively celebrated.
The idea of getting back at this almost mythical figure for the numerous defeats she inflicted on the left is strong motivation for those planning to crack open the Champers on learning of her passing. Considering that during her reign she trounced us at every opportunity, revelled in her victories, and then did it again, the desire to see the back of the woman is perhaps understandable, even if the outright celebration of her passing is, to my mind at least, taking things a bit far.
What we on the left would do well to remember, however, is that the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher are not going to be dented, let alone killed-off by the departure of their most famous living embodiment. ‘All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come,’ Victor Hugo once said, and if the left is to recover from the tremendous setbacks it has suffered during the past 30 years, it is the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher that must be replaced, not the worn-out figure of an elderly lady.
Rather than celebrating the death of a human being, even a not particularly endearing one, the left should instead examine with clear-sightedness where it has gone wrong, how it has behaved and how it can do better – and boy, can it do better. Considering the complete failure to make any political inroads since the 2008 banking crash, this should be clearer today than ever.
Time and energy spent celebrating the deaths of those who popularise ideas we dislike is time that would be better spent popularising our own ideas. With this in mind, morbid celebrations are better left to the psychologically unhinged. The media already does an effective job in portraying us as morally detached from the values of the average person; they certainly don’t need us serving up ammunition on a plate for them.
James Bloodworth of Obliged to Offend reviews Arguably, by Christopher
George Orwell once wrote that ‘every line of serious work
that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly and indirectly,
against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.’
Today, many right across the political spectrum like to pick and
choose from Orwell according to taste, stressing either the democratic,
socialist or anti-totalitarian aspect of his work at the expense of the
multitude – the resulting ‘legacy’ depending very much upon the political
persuasion of those doing the accounting.
Christopher Hitchens, the
one-time darling of the left, has in recent years uncomfortably skirted this
same political dividing-line. He has at once attracted the scorn of his former
comrades for his alleged shuffle to the right, while in the process gathering a
substantial number of followers whose admiration rests almost entirely upon the
premise of him having ‘come to his senses’.
On the surface, the nature
of Hitchens’s politics depends, in a similar fashion to Orwell’s, almost
entirely upon whom one is talking to.
His latest effort, Arguably, is a collection of essays spanning
the past decade on politics, literature and religion. The prose (which is
unsurprisingly of an extremely high standard, even if at times Hitchens employs
rather too much Look-at-me vocabulary) comes with an added element of tragedy
due by the fact that Hitchens was diagnosed with terminal cancer before he wrote
a substantial proportion of it. This may, in fact, be Hitchens’s very last book.
In common with Orwell,
Hitchens stature as a political writer was firmly cemented towards the end of
his life (I sincerely hope Hitchens goes on to live a lot longer), his
reputation as controversialist par
excellence truly coming with his repudiation of the left and his
articulate opposition to monotheism.
Importantly, were Hitchens alone in
rejecting the conventional left/liberal, post-9/11 politics, his bravado and
bluster would likely be much less potent. (Hitchens’s politics were never about
posture alone; but one should not underestimate the importance of showmanship to
the Hitchens brand). As it happened, there were others on the left who also
viewed the attempt on the back of 9/11 to conflate John Ashcroft with Osama Bin
Laden as crass moral equivalence; or as Orwell put it 70 years before: ‘the
argument that half a loaf is no different from no bread at all’.
The problem with the notion that Hitchens, after 9/11, simply did the obligatory
shuffle to the right, or as David Horowitz puts it (underwhelmingly, considering
his own political trajectory), had ‘second thoughts’, is that a substantial
proportion of the left really did climb
into bed with reaction during this period, and continue to do so whenever a
group points AK47s in the direction of the United States and its allies.
This was not confined to the debased remnants of Stalinism, either. The
editorial of the liberal-left New
Statesman of 17 September, 2001, written by then-editor Peter Wilby,
appeared to blame Americans themselves for the 9/11 attacks – for ‘preferring
George Bush to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader’. A few weeks later, the Oxford
Academic Mary Beard wrote approvingly in the London Review of Books about the ‘feeling
that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming’.
Arguably, however, also
shows Hitchens at his dogmatic worst; and at times he resembles Isaac
Deutscher’s description of the ex-Communist who, having recanted on his previous
belief system, is ‘haunted by a vague sense that he has betrayed either his
former ideals or the ideals of bourgeois society,’ and who ‘tries to suppress
his sense of guilt and uncertainty, or to camouflage it by a show of
extraordinary certitude and frank aggressiveness’. In Hitchens’s essays on Iraq,
as Jonathan Freedland points out: ‘The absence of evidence (of WMD) is deemed
not to be evidence of absence but, on the contrary, evidence of the presence of
WMDs in the immediate past.’
While it may be simplistic to simply write
Hitchens off as a ‘Neo Con’, he has very little to say on traditional left-wing
domestic concerns, such as economic or social policy; and it seems increasingly
clear, if only by omission, that interventionism is not the only ‘consensus’
that Hitchens now uncritically accepts.
In a 2008 interview with Prospect,
Hitchens, a man who lives in extremely comfortable surroundings in Washington,
showed a thinly-veiled contempt for those whose lives are made bearable by the
British benefits system, dismissing the welfare state as ‘little more than
Christian charity’. In a recent article for Slate in the aftermath of the
UK riots, Hitchens also appeared to take the establishment line that the unrest
was ‘sheer criminality’ (as one Tweeter put it at the time – ‘yes, we know it is
sheer criminality; the question is why are our youngsters sheer criminals?’).
While much of the British left is right now busy mobilising against the greatest
cut in living standards in a generation, in the same article Hitchens glibly put
‘the cuts’ in brackets and ridiculed the term as an ‘all-purpose expression…
used for all-purpose purposes’.
Dismissing Hitchens as a Neo-Con or a
free-market zealot is indeed a rather pointless exercise; it is, however,
necessary to acknowledge that he no longer notices or much cares for the
struggles of the working class. If it is not part of the dramatic fight against
totalitarianism (which I have no wish to downplay), then it does not seem to
appear on Hitchens’s radar.
Orwell, in a reply (dated 15 November, 1943)
to an invitation from the Duchess of Atholl to speak for the British League for
European Freedom, stated that he didn’t agree with their objectives.
Acknowledging that what they said was ‘more truthful than the lying propaganda
found in most of the press’, he added that he could ‘not associate himself with
an essentially Conservative body’, that claimed to ‘defend democracy in Europe’
but had ‘nothing to say about British imperialism’. His closing paragraph
stated: ‘I belong to the left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian
totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country.’
like many British journalists of his generation, has spent much of his career in
the shadow of Orwell. He has also spent perhaps a small proportion of it waiting
for his very own Orwell moment – a moment when he could take on his own side in
the way Orwell took on sections of the left over its appeasement of Stalinism.
Despite the bluster and fear-mongering (not-to-mention the genuinely repulsive
politics of the Jihadi movement), Islamism is not Nazism or Stalinism; and
Hitchens, however good his prose may be, is no Orwell. In defending the gains of
liberal democracy against its totalitarian enemies, Orwell never dumped his own
A cross-post from James Bloodworth of ‘Obliged to Offend’
Almost 40 years ago, on 28 January 1972, United States President Richard Nixon signed his war on drugs into law. Drugs are “public enemy number one”, said Nixon, and drug addiction had “assumed the dimensions of a national emergency”.
In the 40 intervening years, the US government has spent some £2.5 trillion attempting to destroy the illegal drugs trade at a horrendous human cost – both at home and abroad.
In Mexico 34,612 people have been killed since December 2006 when President Philip Calderon initiated the country’s war against the drug cartels. According to the BBC, the US/Mexico cross-border drugs trade is worth an estimated $13bn (£9bn) a year. A US state department report estimated that as much as 90% of all cocaine consumed in the US comes via Mexico.
Around the world a “clampdown” on drugs continues unabated – from Russia to the US to Columbia to Afghanistan. The same failed policies are being repeated time and again, flying in the face of all the evidence and leaving behind a trail of devastation and a pile of bodies.
In Britain, Professor David Nutt was sacked in 2009 as chief drugs advisor by Home Secretary Alan Johnson for scientifically challenging the hysterical culture of current drugs debate. In the US, the discourse around prohibition is equally mired in falsehood, with attitudes unlikely to change unless there is a spread of the violence that plagues Mexico across the border and into the US.
In June of this year, a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy argued that the “global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”. Previously a 2006 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted that, “the total number of drug users in the world is now estimated at some 200 million people, equivalent to about 5 per cent of the global population age 15-64.” The report went on to say that “In…North America [and] Western Europe, abuse levels remained constant for opiates…In Europe…cocaine use continues to expand.”
Globally, the illegal drug trade supports a worldwide crime empire second only in value to oil. Yet while Latin America functions as a violent narcotics sweatshop for the nouveau riche of London and New York, more visible consequences of prohibition in Britain can be seen on the pallid faces trying to catch the eyes of shoppers on many of London’s most famous streets. Brushing them aside as they ask for spare change is easy enough of course, but you won’t get rid of them that easily. Nick Davies, in his excellent book Flat Earth News cites a confidential Downing Street report which was leaked to the press in 2005 claiming that black market drug users were responsible for 85% of shoplifting, between 70 and 80% of burglaries and 54% of robberies.
Many of Britain’s 300,000 heroin users suffer health problems such as septicaemia, hepatitis, ruptured veins and, occasionally, overdose. What much of the public discourse around drug addiction ignores, however, is that almost all of the harmful effects of heroin are caused not by the drug itself, but by toxic contaminants which are added by unregulated and unscrupulous street sellers. In the respected Merck health journal they are clear about the effect prohibition has on drug content and quality:
“Long-term effects of the opioids themselves are minimal; even decades of methadone use appear to be well tolerated physiologically, although some long-term opioid users experience chronic constipation, excessive sweating, peripheral edema, drowsiness, and decreased libido. However, many long-term users who inject opioids have adverse effects from contaminants (eg, talc) and adulterants (eg, non-prescription stimulant drugs); cardiac, pulmonary, and hepatic damage from infections such as HIV infection and hepatitis B or C, which are spread by needle sharing and nonsterile injection techniques.”
Opponents of legalisation will evoke the possibility of increased drug use as a consequence of the legal availability of hard drugs. The likelihood of this happening, however, must be set against a backdrop of worsening drug conflict in the developing world and increasingly dangerous substances being peddled on British streets; not to mention the fact that drug-fuelled crime shows little sign of abating any time soon.
Legalisation is not necessarily the solution, but may be the least bad option. The other option, if you can call it that, is to let the bodies continue to pile up for another 40 years.