Tuesday, 14 April 2009

A good word, palimpest

I have always wanted to use the word ‘palimpsest’. Now my chance has come. Technically it means an ancient manuscript cleaned for reuse so that the original writing was removed except for faint traces which can be seen by close examination. But it also acts as a political metaphor, something started by Marx and Engels, no less, when they criticised German revolutionaries for over-writing French socialist thinkers with inscriptions of their own pedantry and abstraction. And so to the English left which was displayed in all its glory in the days before the G20 summit.
As the website (www.putpeoplefirst.org.uk) of the march organisers put it “on 28th March 2009, 35,000 marched through London as part of a global campaign to challenge the G20, ahead of their summit on the global financial crisis” A couple of days later, Compass and the New Economics Foundation held what they termed a “Global Economic Summit: No Turning Back” for a hundred invited luminaries of the left (or more precisely what Compass sees as the ‘centre-left’). A couple of days later there was some generalised marching and camping around the City of London accompanied by various kinds of police control and thuggery ending with homicide.
But that was yesterday and today we have to ask just what were all these people marching and talking about and, perhaps more important, just how they hope to achieve whatever it is they want? The first is harder to answer than it might seem, not because they want so little but because they want so much. Global justice, nationalise the banks, support Palestine, effective action on climate change, stop the war, end world poverty ─ there is a list waiting to be made here that would fill this page. All want, in Compass’ term, to build ‘the good society’ and to build it now. Nothing wrong with any of this. In fact a good deal that is right about it. But the problem with such a massive package is that it needs some kind of organising principle to bring it about, in short it needs a politics and that, let us be clear, is just what all this great carnival lacked.
The problem could be seen in the workshop session I attended at the Compass/nef do on climate change. There was no lack of good ideas or original thought. But when it came down to the critical issue of how to carry the ideas through into practical action there was little suggested between individual behaviour ─ the lifestyle project ─ and government legislation. There was a complete absence of any intermediary agencies; parties, factions, councils, unions, anything that might be used to put these ideas into practical effect. At the final session, intended to be about implementing change, it became clear that this was a common thread; plenty of good ideas but nothing on how to implement them.
The most telling moment of the whole afternoon came right at the end when one young man had the nerve to ask the question which had hovered over all the main speakers without answer. We are beginning the run-up to the next general election; what would the panel suggest we do ─ vote Labour, sit on our hands or look elsewhere. There was one ‘politician’ on the panel, that is someone elected to some democratic assembly, John Cruddas, who inevitably pops up at all Compass talk-fests. In fact, looking over the list of the hundred invited luminaries, he seems to be the only person labeled in any party political manner. He gave an opening speech which forecast likely splits and crisis in the British political system though, perhaps oddly, he illustrated this by suggesting that the Conservatives were likely to split into UKIP and BNP fractions, something which, on the eve of an election victory, did sound a touch like whistling in the wind. Or was he trying to tell us something else? Then, in response to the question, he shook his head and passed, preferring not to answer. If a Labour MP cannot respond to this then we are indeed in trouble.
The fact is that neither the marches nor the seminar had any real political content if by political one means the search for functional ways to change how society works. Good ideas aplenty but, as for their implementation, the plan seemed to be write a long letter to Gordon Brown. Better still, write a pamphlet and send that to Gordon Brown. Looking down the long list of the march organisers and the jobs of those at the seminar it is easy to see why this has come about. Dozens of progressive charities, a number of institutes for this and foundations for that, a few unions; in short the left as a think-tank, a kind of extended intellectual academic seminar hoping that its discussions will be noticed by those who matter and that some participants will be invited over to No. 10. This is not a criticism of the ‘centre-left’ only. Those on the wider shores of the left, as might have been seen at the ‘alternative’ G20 summit which might have been held at the Docklands campus of the University of East London had the university authorities not, unhelpfully, closed the campus for the day, seem equally bereft of any political strategy. Ken Livingstone (Save the GLC), John MacDonnell (ditto, only still not talking to Ken), Tariq Ali (Save, save the LSE) would, no doubt, have all lambasted the bankers no end. But any idea as to political action to shift the government would have been in short supply.
So, the British left as a palimpsest; a blank sheet scraped almost clean but with faint traces of its past still to be seen on close inspection. Here an old Labour stalwart, there an old left activist, over there a left academic or two. A dozen or so remnants of the old Communist and Trotskyists parties still just visible. And on the margins, a host of environmental and social campaigning activists lacking any political leadership and largely disillusioned with the whole political process. It is all there waiting to be written on but so far the ink seems lacking.