Sunday, 31 July 2011

Buying and Not Buying - A Primer on Neoliberalism and the Free Market

You have probably heard this comeback a thousand times already. Whenever anyone dares to raise an issue about the evil practices of evil businesses, it’s only a matter or time before someone chimes in: “If people stopped buying, it would have to close down”.

Ah, if only people stopped buying… Why can’t people just stop buying from those evil companies? If only everyone stopped buying, we would no longer have Tescos and Starbuckses. And our world would be inhabited only by small, friendly businesses, where kittens and puppies would greet us at the door, lead by the Churchill Dog.

This is “the” number one justification for not controlling corporations and businesses. It cuts to the core of the present economic system. We have to understand how this system works if we want to change it. In this particular case, we have to understand how it colours our perception of the world and what we can in it.  

Ok, kids, gather round for Mary’s short talk on “Economy 101”

(NOTE: If you are encountering these ideas for the first time, don't panic. It takes time to understand all this properly, and I'm still not all that clear on it myself. Have patience with yourself, don't obsess over what you don't understand (unlike me) and feel free to ask me anything you don't quite get).   

You may have heard that we live in a Capitalist system. It’s true. Now, Capitalism has many variants, and our current one is called Neoliberalism. It wrecked my country and it’s wrecking the world.
Neoliberalism’s motto is “let businesses do what businesses do”. This system is powered by the belief that if we just let businesses do whatever they want, things will eventually turn peachy. The name for this belief is “market fundamentalism” or “free market fundamentalism” and it is the most “fundamentalist” set of beliefs out there. Its basic assumption is that “markets regulate themselves”. Ok, what the Hell does that mean? It means this:

A business opens. People buy from it or not buy from it. If people buy, the business prospers. If people don’t, the business goes bust. This means that in time the only businesses that stay around are those that people liked. Which means that, in time, the only businesses that stay around are those which are “teh awesome”. The universe where “businesses” and “customers” interact with each other, is called “market”. Saying that “markets regulate themselves” means saying that this interaction between businesses and customers works into making things better for everyone. The Government, therefore, needn’t do nothing at all. In fact, it should take a hike, Mike. And that is, in short, the way the “free market” works.

Neoliberalism is now 30 years old. And we are still waiting for “teh awesome”

Now you may have read the above explanation and concluded “hey, that makes a lot of sense”. Yes, it does… when presented this way. This is the way market fundamentalists define the whole “markets regulate themselves” dynamic. It is also “the way things work / the way the world works” according to the vast (vast) majority of the population, who have either never lived under a different system, or haven’t heard of an alternative.

This is not “the way things work”. It’s the way we are told that things work. We are never presented with an alternative, are we?

If you have been following the banking crisis then you may have spotted the problem with the whole “markets regulate themselves” dealio. You may have raised an eyebrow when I said that “if people don’t (buy), the business goes bust”. After all, weren’t the banks in the proverbial sh*t when the estate stepped in and rescued them from total bankruptcy? Why yes, indeed. It turns out that in the real world, markets don’t actually regulate themselves very well.

So what exactly is wrong with this system? Well, approximately everything. But let’s start with the basics. The problem with the explanation of how things work is that it’s incomplete. So, let’s add the ending.

A business opens. People buy from it or not buy from it. If people buy, the business prospers. If people don’t, the business goes bust. This means that in time the only businesses that stay around are those that people liked.
The businesses get bigger, and buy out the competition. They start buying the government, which in turn gives them more power to do whatever they want. With more power and more freedom to do whatever they want, these businesses grow even bigger. Eventually, no other business stands a chance in competing with them. They become giants. Because no new businesses can compete, in time, they are the only ones running the show. Which means that whether people “buy or not buy”, becomes more or less irrelevant.

And here we have arrived to our initial problem. The comeback from the people who don’t like it when we complain about evil companies was “If people stopped buying, it would have to close down”.

It is true that whether people buy or not buy has an impact on whether businesses prosper or go bust. The problem is that when companies get so, so big, they have millions and millions of customers. This means that they can fare well if you stop buying. They can fare well if you and your family stop buying. They can fare well if you, your family, your friends, your community, your nation stopped buying. So in order to stop one of this giant corporations, you and your army need to convince millions and millions of people around the globe to stop buying. And that’s where our problem lies.

Now I’m going to explain one direct consequence of believing that “markets regulate themselves”. It’s important to understand this because it explains a lot about modern society. Here it is.

People are hammered consistently throughout their lives with the idea that “people buy, business grows; people don’t buy, business stops”. Eventually, people believe in this unquestioningly. They come to accept that “if people stopped buying, the business stops”. More importantly, they believe in the “opposite” of this statement: that all and every business that hasn’t stopped is popular with customers. Try and wrap your mind around this because it is that relevant to the way we have come to see the world. People believe that every business they see is well liked, its products are bought a lot, and, by extension, they come to accept that this business is good and moral. (Don’t worry for the moment if you don’t understand that last bit).

This means that people go through life accepting everything they see. This idea is literally a bottleneck in people’s minds. Nobody can question anything that is because everything is as it should be. If you go down the high street of your choice and dare mention to someone that “this business is doing something wrong”, the reply you are more likely to get back is “people buy it”. This idea has got in-built complacency. Nobody can question reality because if it’s real, it must have been chosen by lots of people. And that automatically makes it good, because nobody would dare suggest that anything which has been chosen by millions of people could possibly be wrong.

Spend some time with this idea. It explains so many things. Imagine what it does to people’s minds to not be able to question any aspect of the world around them because “people buy it”. If you can, read about the way that neoliberalism shapes people’s thinking. I wish I could suggest a book to you, but everything I know I’ve learnt it through reading bits and pieces here and there, and then putting the whole thing together myself.

How to break away from this “bottleneck”. If I had an answer to the comeback “people buy it”, I would be a famous writer. Unfortunately, I don’t. I don’t know of anyone else who does either. But I can help you chip away at this poisonous idea. 

And that's exactly what I'm going to do in my next post. (This one is too long already). Stay tuned!

(Hat tip to the ragged robin for getting me to explain the "free market" to an actual human being. Hope I've done a better job here)

Saturday, 30 July 2011

A Moment of Brutal Honesty

I want to take one moment out of our busy internet schedule to pause on the pretence expected of us in this modern world.

Today I went to this course that teaches women how to create change. When we split into groups, two of them said that I was confident and outspoken.
Confident. Me. They clearly had missed the dozens of tears streaming down my cheeks a mere half an hour later when the women in the course, as part of an exercise, waxed lyrically on how much they admired their mothers or, in one case, daughter.
To these women I appeared to have it all together. Even though there is nothing “together” in my life. And I really mean nothing.

There was this girl at work, last year. She was beautiful. She appeared on the local newspaper because her A levels had been so good. She was friendly, and appeared to be loved by everyone.
Apparently, she was also needy and had no self esteem.
She told me of her sister once, how she had social phobia. I met her in person: you couldn’t imagine a more confident looking woman.

Today in the course one woman told us the story of her daughter. She was told, by Atos, no less, that “she didn’t look depressed”. Her mother remarked to us that the one thing you can know about depressed people, is that they are really good at hiding it. Not that Atos could ever care.

I met up with a friend last Saturday, and we talked about the reality of student life. Everyone appears to be having a gay ole time, and yet. And yet, she and I struggled a lot. Gay ole time? More like rotten misery to me.
I remember when I was a student, how wealthy everyone else looked. You wouldn’t believe they were students, required by law to be permanently skint.

Last Wednesday a new acquaintance told me of her friend, who is 30 grand in debt, and has nothing to show for it. Small loans here and there, to pay for shopping sprees and lavish holidays. 30 grand. A life of luxury, shame it’s make believe.
We also discussed her sister, a fully functional adult with husband, children, good jobs, mortgage. Struggling just to get by, because the children “need” all these things… like blackberries and ipads.

And I look at everyone around me, and then look at myself and I wonder… are we all struggling, suffering, and hurting but keeping up appearances? Is our society so shallow that we cannot own up our real life in public for fear of… of what? Social stigma?

Would it feel too much like bursting the bubble of mandatory positivity to admit that, hey, I am actually struggling here. In a world where intimacy and connection have been replaced by “statuses” and “tweets”, would it be an act of rebellion to stop the friendly banter for one moment and scream “I am in pain, I am scared, I am in need”?
What would happen if, just for one day, we all put down our masks and revealed to the world the ugly truth: that we don’t have it all together, that we are barely making it, that we are, in actual fact, falling through the cracks.

We would probably have a revolution the next day. How are we supposed to build solidarity, the hallmark of revolutionary struggle, if we all look confident, perky, positive and wealthy?

That’s the reason why we are fighting. Because things are getting, in the words of a communist friend, “ridiculously sh*t”. For everyone, not just ourselves.

Would you join me? Would you admit to the big internet out here that you may, in fact, be finding it slightly difficult right now? I’ll start.

Hi, my name is Mary and my life is a bit lousy at the moment. Minus the “bit”. I am terrified of the future and can’t imagine things getting any better for me or young people like me. I am afraid I’ll never know security or happiness. That comfort will forever be but a distant memory. That I’ll reach the end of my days studying but having never had a “proper” job. I feel unwanted, irrelevant. I feel like my dreams have been and continue to be ruthlessly exploited by a system intent on making everyone believe that the Universe lies at their fingertips, while at the same time bent on denying everyone access to the most basic needs. And I fear my generation will forever disappear out of history having offered nothing to the world outside desperate complacency to a system that is crumbling around it.
I need new glasses and I don’t know how I’ll afford them. If you know of a job I could do, please let me know, I’ll greatly appreciate it.

I know there are plenty of people out there bursting through the bubble of make believe positivity. And I am grateful for every one of them.

Mark Fisher, author of "Capitalist Realism" and the blog k-punk, has admitted to have struggled with depression, while doing his PhD. You can listen to a talk abouthis book here. I warn you: there will be so many insights flying at you that you may need pen and paper at the ready.

It’s thanks to him that I just found out about Ivor Southwood’s, author of “Non Stop Inertia”. He has a blog or two, and I’m only too happy to have found out about them. He writes about the crude, cold reality of unemployment, precarious work, jobseeking, and the general misery of it all. But he also dishes out a powerful, compelling, original and creative critique of the whole system. How can someone so knowledgeable and capable be unemployed?

Last but by no means least, there’s Sue Marsh’s “Diary of aBenefit Scrounger”. Sue’s occupation: sick person. She writes about her daily struggle with her illness, sheds light on the reality of disability benefits and puts up a fight against the welfare cuts. 

As part of my journey to finding an alternative way to do "politics", I'm intent on covering the personal lived experience of actual people, their stories, their journeys and yes, their struggling. Because, to me, political activism needs to be motivated, at least in part, by the desire to help ourselves and others. And in order to do that, we must start by admiting that yes, help is badly needed at the moment.

Monday, 25 July 2011

What's It Gonna Be?

Following on the attacks in Norway, Jeremy Paxman got busy today interviewing English Defence League leader “Tommy Robinson” (real name Stephen Yaxley Lennon). The reason being that the man behind the attacks in Norway, Anders Breivik, is rumoured to have had connections with the EDL.

The standard liberal response to the interview, much like the time the BNP leader was interviewed on the BBC, is to call him a “thug” “tosser” and “racist”; to decry Newsnight for giving him a platform on which to spout hatred; and to demand that he just stops talking altogether. 

I belong to the more nuanced branch of the Left, which looks at groups like the BNP and the EDL and sees all the signs of fascism that you would expect when THINGS ARE SO CRAP FOR THE WORKING CLASS.

Fascism, contrary to popular belief, is not condemned by those in power: it’s condoned. 

Here’s why:
*In order to rule the world under a right-wing ideology (that’s what we have now, by the way), you need to convince people that the right-wing ideology is good and right.
*Unfortunately, right-wing ideology only serves the interest of those in power, the rich.
*Here’s the catch: most people are not rich. So in order to convince the poor that right-wing ideology is right you need to create scapegoats.

Scapegoats are those groups who are intrinsically oppressed by the system, who will not cause (much) trouble because they are so powerless or so small in number.

What we have here is a whole lot of people getting incredibly angry because their lives are getting progressively worse. And because they can’t find a reason, they turn against the very people that the rich and powerful tell them to turn against. Which, according to the rules of the system, are always the people below them in the social hierarchy. (read Derrick Jensen’s "Endgame" premises for more on this) The very people on which the system acts out violently, one form or another, all the time. Muslims, single mothers, immigrants, asylum seekers, benefit recipients, etc. Because violence is only allowed to flow in one direction, EDL members are merely asking for a more extreme version of that same violence. And it’s in the interest of those in power to keep the poor and angry trapped in kicking those below them to vent their rage and frustration.

In time, however, this situation is unsustainable. Because when poor people don’t turn against the rich and powerful, things tend to get much worse for them. That is exactly what is happening now.
Poor people get angrier because things are getting worse and because their kicking doesn’t seem to be working. This is where Britain is at the moment. And it’s at this juncture that only two things can happen.

* One, people descend into fascism. The leader of the EDL is right in one thing: if things carry on the way they are going, “something like this (the attacks in Norway) could happen in 5 or 10 years time”. Fascism means the most vulnerable in society get some serious kicking. And… nothing much changes for the poor.

* The other thing that could happen is a revolution of some sort. The poor and dispossessed rise against those in power and force them to “make concessions”, that is, distribute the pie more fairly (which comes under the banner of “liberalism”). Or they succeed in taking over power altogether. That would be socialism.

What really chips my hide is that liberals act all surprised at the words of Lennon. Has nobody read the history of fascism? I haven’t, ‘cuz I don’t like history, but even I know the basic ideas behind it. How did Hitler rise to power? Easy. Germans were very poor and very angry. It was either communism/socialism or fascism. And because fascism always works in favour of those in power, it was fascism. (Indeed, Hitler had to disguise his rhetoric under the banner of “socialism”, because the latter was so popular). When he got into power he brought nothing but fascism, and the proof is in the way poor working class people were treated.

There is nothing surprising about what’s going on with the EDL or the BNP. The poor are angry. You only have to listen to Lennon to realise he’s not your average “Newsnight” interviewee. I can’t remember the last time someone on the BBC used the word “them” to mean “those”, a characteristic, I believe, of regional English. How about the words “working class”? This man is not yet another privately educated rich boy with Oxfordian English, which are pretty much the only people you see on the BBC. He represents the poor and angry who have no idea what is causing their misery and lash against those whom the system tells them to lash against.

I get angry and I shouldn’t. The answer is not anger but compassion. Can we at least try to put ourselves in the shoes of those people who are suffering right now, who are poor and working or poorer and unemployed, who have to struggle every day just to get by and watch how the “establishment”, meaning those in power, sneer at the very thought of them?
Can we begin to imagine what it must feel like for those who have only heard one tune their whole lives, one of hatred against those more vulnerable than them, who have never actually known what the left stands for because the “tune” has made sure the left is not an ally to their interests but the cause of their grief, and who have nowhere to turn but towards an ideology that promises some sort of relief by kicking those below them real hard?

Where is the left, I want to know. Sleeping peacefully and soundly among the well-meaning hearts of middle class liberals? Amongst people who find the word “chav” to be offensive but who recoil in horror at the people who carry that label?

I come from a poor country and let me tell you: I have never seen so much hatred against the poor. Yes, they are entirely misguided in their politics. Yes, they are islamophobic, racist, misogynist, homophobic, classist, etc. That’s-the-point. If they weren’t, we would have had a revolution by now.  

We must be very careful not to fall for the trick of hating on the poor ourselves. Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, etc. are not all that surprising: we deal with them on an every day basis. But it's always much easier to hate on the poor when they start spouting these... "ideas". It's much easier because, amongst other things, we get to side with Jeremy Paxman. 

The alternative, as always, is compassion. And dialogue. Lots of it. Yes, even if it is painful and we feel like hating on the haters. Feminists should know; we put up with it everyday. 

Monday, 18 July 2011

Reader Appreciation Moment

I seem to have developed quite a readership all of the sudden. So I want to take a minute to show gratitude to everyone who reads my words.

I am immensely grateful to anyone and everyone who takes the time to read my words. I know how difficult it is, in this internet age, to keep one’s attention fixed on one idea, or even one post. And I also know how difficult it is to read the words of a (let’s face it) fairly novice writer. Especially when that writer has a penchant for coming up with big, fat wacky theories that may or may not explain the world of politics but are, for the most part, unheard of.

So, thank you, every last one of you. For giving me your attention, even if just fleetingly, or your click or your comment.

I see writers who appear reluctant to recognise the existence of readers, much less appreciate them. I don’t want to do that.

I believe that if we don’t catch a moment to remember the people who read our words, in whichever format that may be in, then we run the risk of falling, unconsciously, for the false belief that the readers “don’t exist”, or that they are an amorphous entity that’s just there to do what they are supposed to do.

I don’t mean that we literally believe that readers don’t exist. I mean that without a clear acknowledgement that they do, we run the risk of:

a) believing that we are being read and supported by readers because we are so awesome and, honestly, it couldn’t be otherwise. “I am read because I speak such truths, and in fact I can’t understand why not more people read me. In fact, those who don’t read me must be mad, what is wrong with them?” --- See where that descends into?

Or b) severing the dialogue that is supposed to take place between a writer and their readership. Writing is done through language, which in turn comes from dialogue. This means that all writing is dialogue of one shape or another. And a dialogue needs people who communicate with each other. If we don’t acknowledge the people reading us, we can't establish any dialogue, and our writing becomes ungrounded, separated from our human core, and falls pray to the idea that “we”, writers, preach while everyone else listens.

I would love to have a dialogue with you. If you ever have a reaction to my words, please know that I would value your comment. I know I have a lot to learn and I’m still getting used to the idea of talking with people about politics instead of exploding in bouts of rage at the injustice of it all and, presumably, aiming my voice and my writing at the heavens.

I am trying to come up with a different way to "do" politics, and it's going to take everything I have.
Once again, thank you for being there and allowing me the opportunity to share my world with you. 

And because I'm nothing if not cheesy, I leave you with one of the best songs ever to exist. (I cannot believe nobody has uploaded an actual clip from the movie on youtube, so we are stuck with the original soundtrack and the album cover)

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Feminism: It's All Been Co-opted

“If women's leaders seemed to ignore some of the murkier questions raised by the Clinton scandal--for example, what does consensual sex mean between two people so unequal in power?--it is in part because feminism at the very end of the century seems to be an intellectual undertaking in which the complicated, often mundane issues of modern life get little attention and the narcissistic ramblings of a few new media-anointed spokeswomen get far too much. You'll have better luck becoming a darling of feminist circles if you chronicle your adventures in cybersex than if you churn out a tome on the glass ceiling.”

Oh, boy, don’t we feminists know who becomes a darling of the feminist circles and who doesn’t. Incidentally, rambling on about class struggle and exploitation doesn’t seem to make the cut.

“But if feminism of the '60s and '70s was steeped in research and obsessed with social change, feminism today is wed to the culture of celebrity and self-obsession.”
This article got me thinking. So I want to talk about two things:

* The cooptation of the feminist movement by the forces of the status quo
* What the current “feminism” looks like

The Cooptation of Feminism

Ok, yes, the feminism of the 60s and 70s has been co-opted by the ideas of the status quo, but it's far from being the only one. The civil rights’ movement, the hippie movement, the anti-war movement, and, most recently, the environmental movement have all been rewritten, repackaged and resold in a more “harmless” shape.

Naomi Klein writes about this phenomenon in her book “No Logo”, specifically in the chapter “Patriarchy GetsFunky”. She argues that in the early 90s the political agendas of the civil right’s movement and the women’s movement were used to make brand-content and marketing niche strategies. In other words, the brands took a small part of what people were fighting for, the increased visibility in the media of women and minorities, and sold it back to us. 

While I agree with Klein, I would argue that this cooptation has been going on for much longer. I have heard of Coke using hippie-type ideas and images to sell its brand sometime during the 60s. And other people have argued that it was precisely the selling of commodities that undermined the very political movements of the 60s and 70s – people were “sold” what they wanted, and so they didn’t have to fight for it anymore.

Except, of course, that they weren’t. Because what people were sold was not, in fact, political change. What they were sold is something that appeared to embody political change.

We can see this another way: as people began consuming (well) above their basic needs, around the 50s and 60s in the rich West, marketers have had to imbue their products with “meaning”.  And the best way to do that is to leech off things that people already care about.

Most political movements of the 60s and 70s suffered this fate, not just the women’s movement. And this cooptation of political messages by brands and media moguls carries on to this day. You don’t need me to tell you that the environmental movement has been co-opted by industry promising to sell “green products” in exchange for extra cash.

We also have to look at the historical context in which all this happened. The political movements of the 60s and 70s were firmly rooted in the worker’s movement. In fact, that’s where they sprung from, if you believe the myth. So that when feminists talked about “women’s oppression”, they were trying to get a mostly male and pale worker’s movement to recognise that women experience a particular kind of oppression.

Now, the worker’s movement, not being easy to co-opt by “media” or “brands”, was dismantled the old fashioned way. And with it, the ideas that people’s oppression comes from the economic system, was gone as well. Without this base, feminism, like the civil right’s movement, becomes a hollow talk of “media visibility” and “empowerment through products”.

What I’ve tried to do is put “feminism” in context. It’s not just that the women’s movement was co-opted by “girl power”. There’s a whole process taking place here, aimed at hollowing out any political movement that may pose a threat to the status quo. This is powered by an economy desperate to sell more and more each year despite actually running out of things to sell.

So, what does feminism look like today? (I’ll be referring to that feminism described by Ginia Bellafante). 

Deprived of its core, base ideas of class struggle, economic exploitation, reproductive rights, power hierarchies, etc. feminism is reduced to a “feel good” pep talk. Without questioning the pillars of “how the world works” feminism has nothing to work with other than images, culture and stories. And so feminism becomes limited to little more than “changing your frame of mind”. In essence, this is how it works: if you re-frame your oppression as “liberation” or “choice” or “empowerment” it will become much more palatable. (Incidentally, this is exactly how self-help books operate). This is relatively easy to do because the system has always given people “arguments” to justify their oppression, and because, unless you are gang raped, or sold to slavery, your “oppression” looks… palatable, or you can, at the very least, dream of it being more palatable in the future. “If only I could re-think of my oppression as liberation, I will no longer be oppressed but liberated”. This is how the core idea goes. And it works wonders for feminist writers, who get some fame and cash out of the deal, and who can usually tolerate their oppression better than most.

This is what powers so much of the feminist blogosphere. “How I learned to wear high heels” is bound to get lotsa hits. Since the actions of one individual hardly amount to significant social change one way or another, this kind of thing spreads like wildfire. I have seen feminists post on how “empowering” X is and on how “oppressive” X is. Both cannot be true at the same time. Unless we define “True” as “what is true for you”.

A movement with no leadership, with no clear set of goals, and with a flaky understanding of what forces shape the world, can be easily co-opted by market forces and be reduced to what a few individuals think about their individual experience.

The solution, of course, is for feminism to go back to its roots. It's an oppressive system, and that means we can't "choose" to opt out. I do understand the desire to believe that we are not all that oppressed. But while we can be forgiven for "tuning down" oppression in our personal lives, we won't get anywhere if we don't recognize the forces keeping all human beings oppressed.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Marxism 2011 - What is Marxism?

Marxism is a festival, much like any other, except that it is based on political ideas. It is organized by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and takes place in the centre of London, in the UCL campus. It lasts five days, and it brings together thousands of socialist-minded people to discuss the ideas of Marx and other political thinkers of the socialist tradition.
Its purpose, I believe, is two fold: on the one hand, the festival acts to inform people on Marxist theory, and therefore keeps the tradition alive. This is important. Marxist ideas have withered out of the public discourse, and the texts are really inaccessible to a modern audience.
On the other hand, the festival helps people reframe current events within Marxist theory, so that they can understand better the “what”, the “how”, and the “why”. I am always surprised by the extent to which today’s events can be explained by something Marx wrote in 1867. I am also equally surprised by how much things change when “his” approach is used even in today’s “modern” world: the answer to changing the world always comes back to industrial action, of one for or another.

Marxism is organized much like a scientific conference. People show up at the University campus at 10 in the morning and get ready for a day of lectures on different topics. There are around 10 different topics to choose from on each given time slot, which means that too often there’s more than one lecture you want to attend and you are forced to prioritize. During the lectures, a speaker talks about the topic for approximately 35 minutes. After that, they open the microphone for contributions by the public, and people go to the front and talk for about 3 minutes. The lectures and the contributions are recorded, and are then sold at the end of the festival and/or posted online. A most fantastic collection of lectures is available on the website Resistance MP3. This is the distilled essence of the Marxism festival, and it's invaluable if you want to familiarise yourself with Marxist ideas.

This was my second year at Marxism. This year’s Marxism had a distinctive flavour. Marxism 2010 was based on the idea that “OMG, the cuts are coming and we must stop them because otherwise DOOM!”. Marxism 2011 had a bit more stuff to go over. There are the cuts, of course, dreadful on every front and they were covered in detail by the speakers and the public. There were plenty of references to the “Arab Spring” which was held as a victory for revolutionary forces everywhere. This Marxism had speakers from Egypt, Spain, Greece and Ireland. And last but not least, there was the Grand Strike of J30. Marxism actually started on June the 30th, and the trade union movement was whipped into a frenzy about the power of the Unions and the Strikes. I can't say I share that sentiment.

These are the basics of Marxism. I'll try to follow this up with what was actually discussed and what I think about the whole thing. If you have any questions about it, don't hesitate to ask.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Marxism 2011 - Kate Smurthwaite

I am back from Marxism 2011 and, more importantly, I am now more or less restored from the stress of it all.
I have lots to say about it, but whether I’ll be able to say it is another story.

But first, let’s focus on what’s really important.

OMG!!! I SAW KATE SMURTHWAITE!!! And I have proof! She gave me her autograph afterwards!!! Look!

*grins* I have been looking forward to seeing Kate on stage for ages.

As part of the Marxism festival, there was a comedy show titled “Hysterical Materialism” which, for those who aren’t “in the know”, is a play on words of Marx’s theory of “historical materialism”. I believe the whole theme of the show is “lefty” politics, and comedians are explicitly lefty. I can’t tell you how amazing and strange it is to hear people on stage cracking jokes about Tories and how much we hate them. For once you feel like you are part of the majority.

We tend to think that comedy and politics do not mix. We are wrong, of course; comedy dwells into politics all the fricking time. We don’t notice because it’s the “default” kind of politics; meaning, it is mainstream and pro status quo. Now when you’re in a room full of socialists, all listening to a lefty-leaning comedian, you notice that the jokes themselves are not all that different. Instead of laughing at fart jokes, they laugh at Osbourne and Cameron.

I’m going to be brutally honest here: most comedians do not have the balls gonads to bring up politics.

Kate has the biggest balls gonads of them all.  The “field” of comedy is hard enough as it is for women, what with having an approximate ratio of 100:1. Not only is she a female comedian, which is hard enough, but she is not afraid of bringing up politics. Now, that in itself takes more courage than any comedian you see anywhere. But not content with that, Kate takes it up a notch and is not shy of spicing up her act with feminist ideas. That, my friends, is absolutely unheard of.
I have never, not once, heard a comedian, male or female, use feminist ideas on their act. Though I have heard supposedly “progressive” comedians make decidedly anti-feminist jokes. I’m sure many feminists will agree with me on that.

Why Feminist Comedy Matters
You know how we oppose rape jokes because they make rapists feel validated and reinforce their belief that all men are like them? Well, it’s a similar thing. When Kate makes a feminist joke, she is axiomatically assuming that her audience is on board with feminist ideals. The audience is somewhat “forced” or “coerced” into sharing her values if they want to laugh at the joke. This happens all the time, by the way, with all comedians. People can only laugh with each other and make jokes around sentiments and ideas they have in common. But when Kate brings up feminism, she is giving the impression that the whole audience is feminist and on board with her. So that when everyone laughs, those who are not yet feminists feel that everyone else is. It’s a sneaky but effective way to bring people on board.

If feminists were truly committed to the feminist cause, they would be worshipping Kate. Just because. We should have a Kate fan club with thousands of members.

It doesn’t matter if I disagree with her on something, or if one of her jokes doesn’t make me laugh. The fact that she’s there, when all the cards are stacked against her, should be enough for us to stand right behind her.

It's hard to say anything about Kate other than she rocks. She's funny, insightful and daring. She's also one of a kind. There is literally no one else doing what she does on stage. 
If I could send anything Kate's way it would be a huge bag of support and encouragement, with "keep up the good work" on the label. I have known of Kate for years and in all this time she's kept at it with a determination that should leave us all in awe. She is the living proof that the seemingly impossible, immortalised in the infamous cliche that "feminists have no sense of humour", can be made possible through the refusal to be silenced or go anywhere. 

Like I said, that takes balls gonads. And Kate has the largest ones of all comedians everywhere.

* I spent 5 days surrounded by socialists and let me tell you, for all the “lefty” sentiment, the atmosphere was far from being a feminist paradise. You get the same male-pushiness as everywhere else, not to mention the diminishing of anything female related. During the Q&A of one of the lectures a young woman had the audacity of bringing up the mooncup as an example of a more environmentally friendly approach to consumption. Cue in the males squirming on their seats. You would think they have never heard of menstruation before. I was so angry I felt like shouting and asking them to grow the F up.