Owen Jones on the SWP’s Eton Mess

Owen Jones article here on socialism losing its way:


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I agree to a large extent with this. The SWP is trying to stir up a left-wing populism based squarely upon class resentment. Resentment leads to a mythological understanding of social problems, and therefore, not only is it an inadequate basis for revolutionary practice, but there are similiarities with the Right in the current conjuncture. But I think that the purpose of this article is not to defend Horatio Whatever, but for Owen Jones to defend his leadership role within the movement. This defence extends to his strategy of trying to bring the Labour Party leftwards, so that they can become a ‘representative party’ that ‘champion[s] the needs and interests of working people’; as well as Jones’ parallel strategy (under, e.g. the People’s Assembly) of building a non-dogmatic, pluralistic and ‘inclusive’ movement, in which middle-class public sector workers, whose furthest reaching demand is that their pay keeps up with inflation, are identified as the vanguard of the Left. My objection with Jones’ article is that, since the working class are oppressed by the capitalist class, the working class need to achieve political power and emancipate themselves – not be ’emancipated’ by their ‘more intellectual’ middle-class comrades, nor ‘encouraged’ into the farce of contemporary British unionism. The tension here – the difficult questions that flow from this – are a product of class struggle and class antagonism. They cannot be magicked away by sentimental assurances that Such and Such ‘has his heart in the right place’.

A Profound Faith In the Future: Internet as Universal Exposition

Definition of exposition in English:


Line breaks: ex|pos¦ition

Pronunciation: /ɛkspəˈzɪʃ(ə)n


1. A comprehensive description and explanation of an idea or theory: a systematic exposition of the idea of biodiversity

2. A large public exhibition of art or trade goods: the exposition will feature exhibits by 165 companies

3. Music The part of a movement, especially in sonata form, in which the principal themes are first presented.

4. [mass noun] archaic The action of making something public: the country squires dreaded the exposition of their rustic conversation

Whatever the magnificence of past expositions [of technological progress], these must of necessity be eclipsed by the new expositions that mark the path open to humanity, and summarize its successive conquests.

This is what makes for the success of [the internet]; it is the principle reason for the powerful attraction that [it excercises] on the masses. The [internet as exposition] not only [provides] leisure and gaiety in the midst of the toils of the people. [It appears] as the summit from which we measure the course we have travelled. Mankind, [experiencing it, is] comforted, [filled with] courage and animated with profound faith in the future. This faith, once the exclusive possession of a few noble spirits in the [nineteenth-century], today gains more and more ground; it is the common religion of modern times, a fertile cult, in which the [internet as] universal exposition [performs the role of a necessary demonstration of] the existence of a [global community] that is industrious and animated by an irresistible need for expansion; as enterprises [involved it it] prove themselves less by the material benefits of all kinds that flow from them, than by the powerful impetus they give to the human spirit.

[The emergence of the internet marked] the end of a century of stupendous soaring of science and the economy; it will also be the threshold of an era, the grandeur  of which experts and philosophers are prophesizing, and the reality of which, without a doubt, will surpass the dreams of our imagination.


The internet is not characterised by communication but by display. Its ur-form is precisely the industrial expositions of the nineteenth- and early twenetieth-century. For the internet constitutes one enormous phantasmagoria of commodities, politics and community; and it does so under the mythic sign of progress.

Whilst certain sections of the elite fear the consequences of it allowing workers from different nations to meet and discuss their common interests, the principle effect of this engrossing spectacle is to place the interests of capital in the foreground, and to suggest the necessity of understanding — even love — between workers and ‘their’ captains of technology. The wider the gap between progress in developing the means of production and the ‘anarchy’ of crisis and unemployment in the world economy, the more this phantasmagoria is needed to perpetuate the myth of automatic historical progress and to prevent people from noticing everywhere the signs of social regression and decay.


Disappointed Narcissism

No one uses “Facebook” and similar “social media” in order to engage with others. People visit these sites in order to find themselves. Social media enable a high level narcissism.

Why would people be searching for themselves? Because, whether they realise it or not, they have lost themselves.

There are no meaningful coordinates in modern society by which one might be orientated. Some hark back to older forms of meaning: religion, politics, art. But, these offer little consolation in contemporary society; one cannot swim for long upstream against the torrent.

The torrent is the existential vacuity of life in contemporary society.

This experience is neither univeral nor timeless. It is entirely new and particular to those societies in which unopposed austerity regimes are established, such as the UK. In these places, what is decisively new is the utter eradication of hope.

Without hope – that is, the possibility of change – life is meaningless.

This is the social basis of the existential void that sucks at every vital activity practiced by individuals: work, play, love, sex, walking, socialising, sport, education, masturbation, and so on, indefinitely. We are all living through the hours, wondering at the pointlessness of these activities. Only the depressive functions make sense, as an affective response to this hopelessness: drinking, smoking, sleeping, and so on. Of these, only sleep offers any real relief. For sleep allows us to dream.

Those who wish to survive this incarceration – an incarceration in the hell of the present – search obsessively for new forms of affectivity, vitality, meaning. They build networks in which they might gaze at each other, in the hope that, through the act of gazing at another gazing back at them, they might catch a reflected image of the self they dream they are but find they are not.

Whatever chimera shimmers before them, it is never adequate. They join another site, link sites together, repost and rework, trying desperately to find the angle by which they might catch a glance that pierces through the back of their skull into the secret life they feel they have lost but, in truth, never had.

Social media, then, far from being a “revolutionary medium”, is a symptom of a deep depression across late capitalist austerity societies. Indeed, the fact that so much “hope” has been invested in such “mediums”, as a means of affecting change, only reveals the desperate extent of the general hopelessness. We place our faith in such mediums in exactly the same way the bereaved put their faith in some hack claiming communion with the dead: our desire is precisely to transcend temporality, to step out of the continuum of history. But the present cannot be escaped. It can only continue on and on interminably — or be destroyed.

NB 30/06/14

See also: http://www.leninology.co.uk/2014/06/twitter-warning.html

Twitter is a marketing platform, which is designed to foster short-term buzz and hype.  It would be absurd for me to be pious about this aspect of Twitter, since I depend upon it to circulate my writing, and advertise upcoming events.  Still, this has effects.  The whole point of Twitter is that to fully participate in it, one has to get carried away with passing frenzies.

And it is not just a marketing platform for businesses.  The set-up is that every user account is an ‘enterprise’ cultivating a specific market.  This aggravates a tendency that Christopher Lasch had already identified back in the 1970s.  Lasch pointed out that ‘the individual’ was being extolled and celebrated and fetishised at just the point when selves were being relentlessly fragmented and redivided.  This lent itself to a particular kind of narcissism in which people, increasingly deprived of real agency, sought validation as ‘individuals’ in the mirror of society.  Twitter, while partaking of the fragmentation of the self into many enterprises, also functions as such a mirror.  Again, I’m too well ensconced in this glass house to start lobbing stones about narcissism (have you seen my instagram account yet?), but there’s a particular form of online narcissistic behaviour which I think is especially contemptible, and that consists of soliciting approval and recognition as a Good Person for demonstrating worthy opinions, attitudes and affect.  Most deplorable of all in this vein is a low imitation of humanitarian intervention – the patronising pseudo-deference to whoever is deemed a worthwhile victim, on whose behalf one claims a right to a great deal of viciousness and for whose sake rigour and scruple can be jettisoned.
Finally, this is linked to a sort of panopticon effect, in that everyone is in principle potentially witnessed by, or drawn to the attention of, everyone else on Twitter.  One always wants to be ‘retweeted’ as much as possible, of course, but that attention can suddenly become toxic if one deviates from the norms of one’s Twitter lifeworld.  So there is tremendous pressure – especially for those who basically live on Twitter – to constantly project a self consistent with one’s ego-ideal.  But it’s absolutely no mystery that this sort of strenuous high-mindedness should go hand-in-hand with a punitive, bullying streak – particularly if there’s a chance of, through belabouring the scapegoat of the moment, establishing one’s innocence before the invisible tribunal of one’s peers.

This, then, is my thumbnail account of why Twitter is such an unutterable fucking mess.  Please RT widely.

A dialogue on voting, with a Labour Party supporter

In response to the argument that we need to encourage greater participation in voting, as declining participation in voting is responsible for the success of neoliberalism; furthermore, that voting for the Labour Party is the most progressive option. [I’ve been asked not to repost the original arguments, hence paraphrase.]

A few thoughts.

I think, basically, that your understanding of neoliberalism is inadequate, particularly the focus on voting (I don’t say that as an insult). I think, if we’re to identify (in a schematic and general way) the key characteristic of neoliberal political strategy, this would be the careful, strategic and systematic destruction of the economic, social and political basis of the working-class Left.

So, capital dismantled those industries where working-class organisation was very strong (most famously, the coal industry). It fought and defeated left-wing political organisations (chiefly, trade/industrial unions, but also the Labour Party), and then reconfigured a new, limited role for unions (the LP reconfigured its role in line with this). Neoliberal capital consequently developed new economic sectors, in which working-class organisation and hence political consciousness was not strong. It gradually broke up and gentrified the inner city and working-class neighbourhoods (also e.g. selling off council housing), undermining the social basis of working-class ‘belonging’. It encouraged working-class people to invest themselves in the new arrangement, particularly through new types of work, credit and participation in the housing market. And, of course, neoliberal capital developed effective ideologies that legitimised this attack, shifting public discourse to the right, at the same time as it materially and politically shifted things to the advantage of capital.

So: a monumental economic, social and political shift. The Labour Party responded to this, with Blair, by taking on board the developing neoliberal consensus. It encouraged and facilitated the trends identified above. From appealing to new and established middle class strata, to elaborating ideologies of the dysfunction of the ‘underclass’, as opposed to the strength of the working class, to encouraging the elaboration of financialisation, to participating enthusiastically in neoliberal imperialist projects (Afghanistan, Iraq).

Where does the decline in voting that you identify figure in this? Not as a cause of the success of this neoliberal project, but as a symptom of its success (but also its weaknesses). Firstly, the traditional working-class bases of Labour Party membership have been destroyed, emptying out the party of members, whilst the political roles of other working-class organisations – particularly unions – have been strictly limited. Unions are no longer political organisations; they are workplace negotiators. Secondly, carrying out this shift has involved what Stuart Hall called ‘authoritarian populism’: although there has been popular support neoliberalism, there has also been a lot of resistance. But, the neoliberal project has been pushed through anyway. Indeed, as neoliberal capital has worked to create favourable conditions for itself, it has elaborated new political instituions to ensure and legitimise this – e.g. the EU. Capital has really been able to politically solidify and strengthen its position, to the point where the governments of nation states have very little room to manoeuvre (look at Greece, for example); this is the situation in which debates over the EU are taking place, although this debate is currently dominated by the Right, and mystified through all sorts of bigoted ideologies. This situation – the growing strength of capital; increasingly authoritarian processes of decision making and law and order; the weakness of the Left – has resulted in an undermining of democracy: in the workplace, in the community, in government. The result has been that the political process has, to a large degree, lost legitimacy. Somewhere around here the decline in voting participation figures appears as a symptom of the general malaise.

Do neoliberal capital and its representatives worry about people voting?

I think you are right that capital is concerned when people begin to form movements that might shift the balance of political forces to the left. We saw that, for example, with the harsh repression of student protest and the Occupy movement. These movements were literally described as “terroristic” and dealt with under anti-terror legislation (brought in by Labour, btw: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/libertycentral/2009/jan/22/explainer-terrorism-legislation). That is, apart from ideological battles (mostly lost), the neoliberal state rapidly mobilised to materially contain and destroy these movements, in their infancy. Crucial here, in allowing this to happen, was the Labour Party’s complete failure to ally itself with these movements and to assume any leadership of a growing anti-austerity movement (of young people and public sector workers), which peaked in 2011 with around 1m marching in London, before collapsing in the absence of any coordinated political representation and leadership.

However, this concern with regards to social movements should not be confused with voting. What the neoliberal state fears is the sort of crisis of legitimacy that we saw in 2011 when national rioting occurred. The state gets very concerned when people step outside of the narrow confines of established channels for political action (particularly when it must also negotiate with a disgruntled police force). Participation in voting, in a moment of neoliberal consensus across all contending parties, does not concern capital in the slightest. Rather, it actually encouages it, since it aids legitimacy.

Arguably, this consensus is troubled at the moment: but not from the Left. Rather, it is  Scottish Independence and UKIP that are putting pressure on the consensus. The Right is making gains. In this context, a vote for Labour is a vote to protect neoliberal consensus politics against those elements of the political right that are troubling it. It is not a politically progressive gesture. Anyone who thinks encouraging the ‘masses’ to vote for Labour troubles the neoliberal consensus is deluding themselves.

Hope that sets out my position, and clarifies my disagreement with you. All best.

The Austerity University #2: The composition of UCU membership

So – as I wrote here – it was inevitable that the 2% pay increase would be accepted by UCU.

Dear colleague,
The result of the higher education pay ballot is as follows:
A total of 30,141 valid votes were counted, giving a turnout of 52.6%. The eligible votes were cast as follows –
To accept the offer and call off the marking boycott:
25,239 (83.7%)
To reject the offer and commence the marking boycott at the earliest opportunity possible:
4,902 (16.3%)


What caught my eye, here, were the figures. A few quick points – judging things by eye, to save time.

If 30,141 people is 52.6% of the UCU membership, then total UCU membership is shy of 60,000.

Is that a lot, or not? Well, according to HESA statistics, that’s about one third of total UK academic staff employed by UK HE institutions (i.e. not including non-academic staff, who outnumber academic staff): 2012/13: Total academic staff: 185,585.

Interestingly, HESA break this down further:

Academic staff by academic employment function 2012/13
Activity Full-time Part-time Total
Teaching only 10730 36065 46795
Teaching and research 75710 18890 94600
Research only 34810 7540 42350
Neither teaching or research 1250 590 1840
Total 122500 63085 185585

 So, here we see a breakdown into the (more or less) three categories of academic staff we encounter in the university department: “bona-fide lecturers” (BFLs), Research Assistants (RAs) and Teaching Assistants (TAs).

What’s really interesting is that non-lecturer staff – RAs and TAs – almost equal the number of BFLs. And I remember a survey like this going around, by the by; many TAs are actually PhD students (doing research) or post-docs who are at least trying to find time to research. Consequently, a number of TAs and RAs might be concealed within the ‘Teaching and Research’ fold.

Now, here’s my speculative argument. Most of UCU’s academic members come from the BFL camp. For BFLs joining UCU is a no-brainer. Most of their peers are in UCU. A leaflet comes around. The Department Rep talks to them. It’s not really a question, whether or not they can afford the dues. And they’re going to be sticking around long enough that the  admin involved doesn’t seem a hassle for nothing. Above all, UCU talks to them: UCU is addressed to the BFLs, above all.

Can the same be said of RAs? Who are RAs anyway? Mostly these are postgraduate or postdoctoral researchers. Most of them are in the sciences, embedded within insular research project teams. For most of them, the terms of their fixed-term contracts are fixed: they couldn’t particularly give a shit whether pay goes up 1% or 100%, as it doesn’t affect their stipend. (Plus, they’ve more urgent data to consider!) And, they’re not particularly loyal to any one institution, because loyalty is a bit misplaced when you’re chasing around the country from one fixed-term contract to another.

So, to cut a long story short, I imagine RA recruitment to UCU is the lowest of all of these categories. If you’ll forgive my flippancy, let’s just say that there are around 40,000 non-unionised workers here.

TAs are a different matter, because they are located right at the centre of many of the antagonisms caused by the austerity university: from pinched budgets, to the devaluation of teaching, to the troubled job market, to the introduction of fees. Consequently, they are  more available for recruitment to a project aimed at critiquing and resisting the austerity university. On the other hand, there are a number of problems with TA recruitment. First, the precariousness of TAs is disempowering: they tend to avoid confrontation in the workplace. This is particularly true given the perceived need to keep senior BFLs onside for references and employment opportunities.”In the final analysis”, TAs will put up with almost anything, because they perceive their problems to be temporary – soon they’ll be done with the PhD, soon they’ll get a job, &c.The problems they encounter are always “exceptional” (except, of course, they aren’t at all!). Second, the actual experiences and desires of these TAs can be quite diverse – across departments and faculties, between the arts and social sciences and the hard sciences, and across universities, as well as in terms of the TA’s career position – e.g. a first year PhD student with a fees-waiver or someone 4 years out of the fold, still trying to secure a BFL contract. Consequently, percieved problems, demands and ‘solutions’ may be at odds – e.g. to the unemployed postdoc, fee-waivers might appear to be part of the problem, whilst for the PhD student struggling with their finances, fee-waivers are an opportunity. Third and finally, many TAs do not see UCU as their union, and UCU does very little to engage and recruit them. For example, one of the few UCU campaigns touching on the issues TAs face is the very, very quiet ‘anti-casualisation’ campaign. Many TAs could precisely see this as an attempt to shut them out of HE employment; it certainly doesn’t speak to their concerns and needs in any clear way. Meanwhile, in the workplace, there is next to no attempt to actively raise awareness amongst TAs that they can join UCU and to encourage their participation in local branches.

Again, then, I suspect UCU recruitment of this 40,000 strong body of academic staff is very low. Of my TA friends, about 1 in 20 is in UCU.

All of this is to say:

UCU lost this pay fight. Part of the reason why they lost it is that they are not strong as a union. Why are they not strong? Partly it’s because their membership is only one third of total academic staff. More, they tend to represent the BFLs: that is, the interests of the ‘labour aristocracy’ within academic HE employment. This basic fact leads to the sort of conservative campaigning we’ve seen: a pay-fight on behalf of the (relatively) most comfortable strata of academic workers. How could we expect anything ‘radical’ to occur in this situation? The labour artistocracy identifies its needs with the economic growth and ‘success’ of the university – even if it questions certain priorities and disagrees with the specifics of certain proposals. This massively limits its availability for a project of critiquing and resisting the austerity university (and austerity more generally).

Those who want UCU to be a ‘fighting’ union, then, those who oppose the ‘austerity university’ and want to see a concerted struggle for a ‘radically different’ type of university, should focus on how UCU might recruit this 80,000 strong contingent of precarious workers – and particularly TAs. For it is within the teaching-only staff that many of the antagonisms of the austerity university are focused; consequently, it is from this contingent that the most radical approaches will emerge.

Alternatively, one could suggest this: TAs are not going to get anywhere within UCU, given the burden the lumpen labour aristocracy represents. Perhaps they’d be better taking a lesson from the Tres Cosas campaign – perhaps TAs should start self-consciously organising themselves, through the ‘pop-up union’ model. But, how can the necessary sort of political consciousness emerge amongst the fragmented TA body? That’s a problem I’ve pondered since 2009, when, along with about 10 PhD students, we attempted just this. I still haven’t found an answer.

Habitus photo essay – a few thoughts


A two-part foto essay, by me:

The first is a set of photos of objects, most of them from my own home. The photos tend to be taken idly, e.g. at the start of new film roll. The subjects are often repetitive. E.g. I often load film in my bedroom or in the kitchen (where I keep my film), and shoot a photo of the window. Nonetheless, these accumulating photographs, of the accumulated debris of my home, have themselves accumulated meaning for me, demanding a second glance. This is often accompanied by thoughts about the future, about how I will look back on these photos, and how the vital fabric of our everyday lives often goes undocumented:


The second explores similar ideas, but in the homes of my brother and his friends. Visiting them, seeing their intimacy, and the rich density of the trash strewn around their Newcastle houses, was always very beautiful:


A note on the form: ‘photographic’ images are becoming easier and easier to produce, as digitial photography develops alongside all sorts of mobile/integrated imaging ‘technology’. Perhaps, as a result, photos are becoming more disposable.* If so, this does not necessarily mean that photography is ‘closer’ to our everyday lives, nor that it is now ‘in the hands’ of the proverbial ‘man in the street’ (cf. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’). Indeed, a corollary response to digital developments has been the proliferation of ‘expertise’: the hyper-production of magazines and clubs and courses and equipment – particularly increasingly ‘powerful’ and expensive camera sensors and lenses. Search the net and you’ve a hundred thousand ‘professionally’ produced images at your tips. The very weight of these accumulations of ‘well lit’ photographs is depressing; the most fantastic images are now the most banal. This hyperatrophy of the photographic means of production, the vast accumulation of photographic ‘wealth’, renders the longest exposure or the keenest portrait equivalent to the most offhand ‘snap chat’ snap. (Again, cf. Benjamin.)

The only way out of this I can see, at the moment, is to shift from the image itself to the organisation of images. In these ‘essays’, the locatedness of the images, and their semi-articulation of ideas and narratives, side-steps the fetish/banality of the ‘image itself’.**

Or, at least, that’s how I see it.

*According to my housemate who, recently, very patiently explained ‘Snap Chat’ to me.
** Having said this, the self-conscious fetishisation of high technique – use of light, composition, printing – when achieved at sufficient intensity, still manages to shock, on occasion, with its beauty and clarity. Obviously I prefer other photographers’ images to my own. Let us hope new and more fantastic methods of arrangment can be dreamed up.