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Ben Little, Alison Winch
In this first instalment of our Soundings series on critical terms, we look at the idea of ‘generation’, a term which has become highly prevalent within political discourse since the financial crisis.1 As with all the concepts in this series, the idea of generation is differently mobilised by different political actors. Right-wing thinkers use generation in a sense that can be traced back to Edmund Burke to mean the transmission of property and culture through time, while other commentators draw on meanings derived from Mannheim to refer to the experiences of particular cohorts at times of rapid political change. For activists on the left, it is important to distinguish between these different connotations of generation. The Burkean approach has regressive implications, for example in the justification of austerity as a way of protecting future generations from debt; and the Mannheimian understanding, although not as conservative, needs to be connected to an intersectional analysis that looks at other identity markers alongside those of age - such as class, race, gender and sexuality - so as to avoid flattening differences within cohorts and impeding solidarities between generations.
Inequality is one of the most pressing issues of our time. It has long been the Labour Party’s lodestar. We need to take a clear-eyed look at its causes and consequences in the twenty-first century in order to put together coalitions and policies to tackle it effectively. The challenges are great, but there are new analyses and ideas on the left that should give us hope.
Income inequality may soon start to fall, but this isn’t a cause for great optimism. Inequality is at far higher levels in Britain than other large European countries, with hugely damaging effects for society and quality of life, as well as for politics: high inequality tends to go along with political disengagement and high levels of far-right voting.
The left has traditionally viewed the fight against inequality through the lens of the poorest in our society. But the stagnating real incomes of those in the middle of the income spectrum means we need to reframe it as a majoritarian issue, and tackle it with a comprehensive plan that attacks inequality from different angles.
Mike Savage, Sam Friedman
Britain’s class landscape has changed: it is more polarised at the extremes and messier in the middle. The distinction between middle and working class is less clear-cut. The elite is able to set political agendas and entrench their own privilege. The left needs a clear narrative showing how privilege leads to gross unfairness – and effective policies to tackle the ‘class ceiling’ so entrenched in our society.
Climate change will only break out of its eco bubble if we understand not only the impacts, but also the opportunities that tackling it effectively can open up for greater economic and social justice.
Trump is a particular type of reactionary American populist. The article tracks the history of American populism beginning with the formation of the People’s Party (also called the Populist Party) in 1891 as an agrarian movement based on anger of the Little Man against the western elite.
Deborah Grayson, Ben Little
Our new series, Soundings Critical Terms aims to explore and build on a range of theoretical resources that members of the editorial group have found helpful to their own understandings of politics. This article offers a framing statement for the series as whole, and makes a strong case for the place of conjunctural writing at the heart of the project. It looks at four key ways in which thinking conjuncturally can be of assistance to the left: as a means of analysis of periods of conjunctural crisis and contradiction; as an a priori necessity for effective political intervention; as a space open to bringing together longer trajectories of thought; and as an enabler of reflection on the shifting forces of socio-political histories. The aim is to begin to develop a rich toolkit of concepts, histories and understandings that enable us to think through what is possible, to determine the direction of future interventions, and to provide a space in which crucial differences and agreements within left activism can be explored.
There is currently a lot of frustration with the failures of liberal democracy, and a turn by some on the left towards a politics that eschews liberal democracy in favour of a radical politics based on ideas similar to those of communism. But a key lesson from the history of communism is that one of the main causes of its failure was its attitude towards democracy. In countries ruled by communist governments, the party was seen as embodying the working class and hence democracy, and all other standpoints were repressed. Waite analyses how the repressive structures of state communism arose, before going on to discuss ways in which Gramscian communists sought to rethink issues of democracy and to shape new communist oppositional practices within liberal democracies.
Part of the Soundings Futures series, the first part of this article is an assessment of the scale of regional inequalities in Britain and the failures of the orthodox policy initiatives that have been advanced to address them. The main weaknesses of successive policy shifts have been that: overall expenditure has simply been inadequate to the tackle the scale of the problem; any expenditure on regional aid has been vastly out-weighed by other forms of government expenditure which tend to favour the more economically advantaged parts of the country; regional problems have been attributed to underlying deficits in lagging regions rather than being understood in terms of unequal power relationships between regions, or more fundamental aspects of the centralised system of British political economy. The Northern Powerhouse model shares aspects of all these policy flaws. In response, the article sets out some elements of an alternative agenda, based upon a fundamental reshaping of the structure of economic governance. Measures proposed include: much greater real political decentralisation and new forms of regional governance; an industrial policy focused on job creation in industries that offer middle-level skilled jobs, such as manufacturing, construction and healthcare; a policy of inclusive growth - one that seeks growth that promotes good quality jobs and poverty reduction; a geographical shift in central government investment patterns and a relocation of good quality government jobs to the regions.
Matthew Worley, Evan Smith
In 2014, we edited a collection of essays under the title Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press). Our objective was really twofold. First, to generate discussion on the British left in general; to bring together scholars and writers in order to present a ‘way in’ to current thinking on the history of the British left. The context of the book’s gestation was telling: the idea began in the wake of the 2010 general election and the fall of New Labour.
The History Workshop movement, a grassroots coalition of radical-academic, feminist, and labour historians founded at Ruskin College in the late 1960s under the guidance of Raphael Samuel, represents a powerful example of the fusion of political commitment with historical practice. However, outside of a handful of general commentaries, the history of the Workshop remains mostly unexplored. This article focuses on two central pillars of the Workshop’s programme, the annual workshop gatherings held at Ruskin and the History Workshop Journal, in order to examine how its socialist (and feminist) political aspirations were translated into democratic and radical historical forms. It argues that this connection between politics and history should not be simply understood in theoretical or ideological terms, but should also encompass the symbolic, aesthetic and emotional dimensions of historical practice. While critical attention is paid to the tensions and limits of the Workshop’s project, the article suggests that it was precisely in the effort to negotiate the contradictions inherent in its own ideals that the relevance and productive use of the case of History Workshop endures.
This essay examines how the critical theory of photography has, at least since Barthes and Sontag, developed a default position that is routinely suspicious of the political and aesthetic value of images of the dead, even as the archive of images of the dead continues to accumulate and to shock. Photographic theory seems to share the post-war assumptions that death has been eclipsed by modernity, sequestered away and rendered taboo. The project here is to give a sense of the array of photographic practice that exists in stark opposition to these assumptions, and indeed in the contemporary moment seems actively to stage an argument with the thesis of the ‘eclipse of death’. It considers work ranging from Sally Mann and Luc Delahaye to the recent projects of Edgar Martins.
This article explores representations of autoerotic death in a range of discursive fields: the media, forensic pathology, the psy sciences, literary fiction, and internet humour. It adopts a broadly Foucauldian approach to the study of the topic; i.e., rather than interrogating what sexual practices leading to autoerotic death mean, or what motivates people to experiment with these ‘extreme’ practices, it explores instead what attitudes towards autoerotic death tell us about normative cultural understandings of sexuality and gender. The article interrogates the ways in which gender norms and roles are at play in the apprehension of autoerotic fatalities, marking some of the men who die in this way as effeminate, failed men; while others are represented as hyper-masculine misadventurers. It also discusses why the rare female autoerotic fatality troubles assumptions about the nature and role of women. The biases guiding definitions of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ sexuality and gender are thus revealed in particularly striking ways by moving the focus of interrogation away from the pathologised practices and the bodies they produce, and onto the discourses that pronounce about them.
Books reviewed: Ben Anderson, Encountering Affect: Capacities, Apparatuses, Conditions, Farnham, Ashgate, 2014, 194pp, £65.00 hardback Maurizia Boscagli, Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism, New York and London, Bloomsbury, 2014, 279pp, £16.99 paperback Elizabeth Chin, My Life with Things: The Consumer Diaries, Duke University Press, 2016, 239pp, £19.99 paperback Tonino Griffero, Atmospheres: Aesthetics of Emotional Spaces, translated by Sarah de Sanctis, Farnham, Ashgate, 2014, 174pp, £65.00 hardback
In his essays on the inner culture of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the historian Raphael Samuel remarked that ‘educa-tion was a universal idiom’ in the party. Unsurprisingly, an organisation so concerned with learning attracted many schoolteachers and educationalists. A significant number were present at the CPGB’s foundation in 1920,2 and the party schoolteachers’ group numbered somewhere between one and three hundred for the next decade.3 Communists who were professionally engaged with the education of children were also relatively untouched by the schism between British communism and the labour movement’s institutions of adult education, which was the result of the Communist International (Comintern) in December 1922 specifying that the Plebs League and National Council of Labour Colleges should be brought under party control.4 And when the CPGB first made serious attempts to attract professional workers in the second half of the 1930s, the party’s official historian noted that schoolteachers were represented ‘above all’ among these recruits.5 They retained this presence into the post-war period. Between 1944 and the mid-1960s the around 2000 party schoolteachers were by far the largest ‘white collar’ profession represented at CPGB national congress; indeed they made up the third largest of all occupational groups inside the party.6 But it is not just the numerical force of British communists concerned with children’s education which makes them an interesting group to analyse.
Less than a decade ago, the perception that ‘the party’ was an outmoded structure irrelevant to radical left politics was wide-spread. The striking – if inevitably uneven and contradictory – emergence and progress of actually existing leftist parties in the conjuncture shaped by the 2008 crash has transformed the terms of reference. Theoretical discussion has returned to questions about socialist strategy, and in particular the challenge of re-imagining and reinvigorating the Marxist party in new times.3 Historical analysis of the structures and experiences inherited from the past have a key role to play in this process. The national communist parties with which this journal is centrally concerned continue to haunt the contemporary radical political imagination.