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Variant, issue 36, Winter 2009

contents

People should not ask why, but only say because
Creative Scotland, parliamentary submission.

The Last Days of Jack Sheppard
Interview with Anja Kirschner and David Panos, by Neil Gray

Locus Of Control
Eddie Molloy

When and why did the Russian Revolution go wrong?
Brian Pearce, with commentary by Terry Brotherstone

Vagabonds, criminals, paupers & gangrels?
Interview with Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty & Edinburgh Claimants

Between rhetoric & reality
Susan Fitzpatrick

Sticky Fingers
KPMG and the Accountancy Oligopoly

John Barker

The Space Merchants
Escaping the Iron Cage of Rationality by Rocket to Venus

Bryan Fanning

The Ill-Health of the State
Tom Jennings

The Place of Artists' Cinema
Robert Porter

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People should not ask why, but only say because.

Public submission to parliamentary committee discussions of Creative Scotland and the Public Service Reform Bill, from Variant magazine

The Public Service Reform Bill states its “overarching purpose ... is to help simplify and improve the landscape of Scottish public bodies, to deliver more effective, co-ordinated government that can better achieve its core functions for the benefit of the people of Scotland.” Our submission argues that this is certainly not the case in the proposals concerning the formation of Creative Scotland. The bill’s proposals for Creative Scotland instead represent an historic revision and backward trend in cultural policy. We argue that the organisation of Creative Scotland, as it is presently proposed, erodes certain key values, such as the arms length principle and the universal distinction between culture and commerce.

These first principles were established under popular governments in the UK from 1945 onwards and in the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions which came into force in 2007. Variant is an arts organisation that depends on these national principles and international standards being upheld if we are to survive in Scotland. We are already seeing the erosion of our rights to freedom of expression in official interference with the distribution of our publication thanks to contemporary policy increasingly geared towards the synergy of a promotional culture in Scotland.1 The pressures now put upon us reflect the underlying logic of “single purpose government” rather than reflecting normative democratic values in cultural policy. We therefore object to the current proposals for Creative Scotland on the basis of our human rights.

Michael Russell MSP, Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution, has stated Creative Scotland is to be “an entrepreneurial organisation”. Indeed, the design of the organisation owes more to a mixture of bureaucrats and business people than it does to cultural practitioners or to those with independent critical expertise in cultural policy. The discursive isolation of Creative Scotland from broader-based debates about cultural policy has impoverished the discussion of its functions. The recent Hollyrood governments that proposed its creation have sought to reconcile economic instrumentalism and pure artistic freedoms (or “arts for arts sake”). However, this dichotomy, which Creative Scotland is said to transcend, is part of a complex history that has still not been fairly debated and assessed, as it should be, before making fundamental reforms to the ethos of cultural provision.

In his work on the post-1945 period, the historian Alan Sinfield summarises the view that democratic culture in the UK became relentlessly “squeezed between art and commerce.”2 Only by ignoring such studies can an entrepreneurially orientated organisation be projected as a solution to a classic issue of cultural policy. Most scholars of cultural history would call into question the idea that freedom of artistic self-expression is synonymous with the defence of broader cultural rights, yet this is what has been implied time and again by politicians voicing support for Creative Scotland.

Creative Scotland offers a fundamental reform to a key aspect of democratic society, yet it is being pushed through as part of much wider bill aiming for a whole range of technocratic efficiencies which dissolve the arms length organisations – overwhelmingly these are scrutiny bodies at a time when failure of public accountability is salient.

Although reforms of cultural provision may be long overdue, without a more fully informed parliamentary enquiry to deepen MSPs discussion about cultural policy, the proposals for the organisation remain premature. The lack of parliamentary discussion about how to best pursue UNESCO treaty commitments to diversity of cultural expression (which include the diversity of political expression) has shown how far removed Scotland’s civic discourse on culture remains from a country like Sweden which pays greater attention to UNESCO standards. Sweden recognises the need to counteract “the negative effects of commercialism”3 and how markets may distort and reify culture as a series of global commodities. However, the branding and commodification of culture in Scotland is one of the key motivations for the new organisation. Indeed throughout the promotion of Creative Scotland the idea of branding has been used in an entirely uncritical sense. On the other hand, scant regard has been paid to popular cultural institutions such as libraries and how popular cultural institutions and leisure may be strengthened and developed.

There is little or no evidence that an avowedly entrepreneurial organisation, more directly geared to economic policy, is needed or will improve existing relationships of sponsorship and/or synergies between the arts, culture and business. In this sense, the development of Creative Scotland’s mission, or ‘core script’, appears to be more about ideological engineering than economic necessity, improved service levels, or the public good. Moreover, the unintended consequences of the shift towards an entrepreneurial ideology in the public provision of culture have not been tested in free and fair public debate. Marketplace “truths” require far greater scrutiny, as has been amply demonstrated in recent months.

The risks of direct political influence over the arts was a preoccupation of the Arts Councils in the UK for many years, as Nicolas Pearson has charted, from the Arts Council of Great Britain’s Eighth annual report (1953): “Every organisation [the Council] assists, large or small, has its own governing body and it self-determined policy”, the importance of this being that, “Certain local authorities have shown an excess of zeal by providing concerts and plays under their own management, an endeavour which could be seen to be – even if not designed as such – a movement towards L’Art Officiel, and on that ground as dangerous as similar provision by a central quasi-governmental body such as the Arts Council”.4

However one judges the record of Arts Councils’ autonomy, and there are many scholars like Raymond Williams who thought that the arms length principle was in fact only a “wrist length” from the ruling establishment5, the danger of Creative Scotland is more far-reaching than that of L’Art Officiel. Creative Scotland opens the door to a corporate-friendly Culture Officiel under the guise of cultural nationalism. This comes just at the moment when corporate power and the rule of markets are increasingly questioned by ordinary citizens. It would be naïve to assume that an agency set to abandon an already weak arms length principle in favour of a commercially orientated cultural policy could uphold the very criticality concerning culture and commerce that is already under threat.

Notes

1.   Following a complaint from Culture & Sport Glasgow (CSG), Variant were informed that the magazine had been removed from Glasgow venues managed by CSG following the publication of ‘The New Bohemia’, an article by Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt that critically mapped the political network of CSG. The interference with the distribution of Variant would appear to contravene the author’s rights to free political expression as determined by the European Court of Human Rights in cases such as Lingens v. Austria (1986), Oberschlick v. Austria (1991). See, ‘Freedom of Expression on Trial: Caselaw under European Convention on Human Rights’, by Sally Burnheim, http://www.derechos.org/koaga/i/burnheim.html (Accessed May 2009.) See also, ‘Comment’ in Variant, issue 33. An extract from CSG’s complaint to Variant, 23/7/08, states: “The images you chose to illustrate the piece are in no way representative of Culture and Sport Glasgow and the work that it does. They would appear to have been chosen to illustrate the city of Glasgow in a negative way and thus associate Culture and Sport Glasgow with negative imagery.”
2.   Alan Sinfield, ‘The Government, the People and the Festival’, in Jim Fyrth (ed.), ‘Labour’s Promised Land?: Culture and Society in Labour Britain 1945-51’, (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995).
3.   “The objectives of national cultural policy include safeguarding freedom of expression and creating genuine opportunities for everyone to make use of that freedom; taking action to enable everyone to participate in cultural life, to experience culture and to engage in creative activities of their own; promoting cultural diversity, artistic renewal and quality, thus counteracting the negative effects of commercialism; enabling culture to act as a dynamic, challenging and independent force in society; preserving and making use of our cultural heritage; promoting the thirst for learning, and promoting international cultural exchange and meetings between different cultures in the country.” ‘Sweden’s objectives of national cultural policy’, www.sweden.gov.se/sb/d/3009/a/72002
4.   ‘The Quango and the Gentlemanly Tradition: British State intervention in the visual arts’, Nicholas Pearson, The Oxford Art Journal – 5:1 1982.
5.   Williams, R. (1989 [1979]): The Arts Council. In: Williams, R.: ‘Resources of Hope. Culture, Democracy and Socialism’, (Verso).

 

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The Last Days of Jack Sheppard
Interview with Anja Kirschner and David Panos by Neil Gray

The Last Days of Jack Sheppard (55 mins, UK, 2009), by Anja Kirschner and David Panos, follows on from their recent films: Polly II – Plan for a Revolution in Docklands (30mins, UK, 2006), a dystopian take on the pirate adventure which is part satirical sci-fi, part soap opera, and part Brechtian ‘teaching play’; and Trail of the Spider (53mins, UK, 2008), a ‘western’ filmed in Hackney and Essex which transposes western frontier motifs and the suppressed racial history of the American West onto the gentrifying landscape of East London.
The Last Days… is based on the inferred prison encounters between the 18th Century criminal Jack Sheppard and Daniel Defoe, the ghostwriter of Sheppard’s ‘autobiography’. Set in the wake of the South Sea Bubble financial crisis of 1720, the film explores the connections between representation, speculation and the discourses of high and low culture that emerged in the early 18th Century and remain relevant to the present day.
Filmed in the Chisenhale Gallery space, The Last Days... was co-commissioned by CCA, Glasgow, and Chisenhale Gallery, London. It was presented at the CCA within an installation fabricated from elements of the original set and a display of archival material, laying bare the film’s structural elements.
Their three films represent a body of work that engages with a plethora of historical, literary, and popular sources, digging out and radically re-working hidden or obscure narratives in a range of different registers. Each film brings to bear a host of allegorical associations and narrative forms, but re-fashions them to create uneasy resolutions that probe into the problems and possibilities of class politics, the boundaries of different genre styles, the false division between high and low art, and the vexed question of ‘political art’.
Admiring the integrity of their approach, the intelligence and depth of their research, and their consciously radical re-deployment of these resources (as opposed to the “mindless citation”2 which is such a constituent feature of much contemporary art), Neil Gray asked the film-makers to discuss their work.

Your work together has consistently dealt with the construction, mediation and representation of working-class subjects as well as the relationship between fiction, myth and historical possibility. How have these themes developed from your previous work?

Many of the themes we dealt with in Polly II 3 and Trail of the Spider 4 were raised by a longstanding engagement with the urban politics of East London. From 2000, David had been involved in The London Particular 5 documentary and research project with Benedict Seymour and others, trying to understand what was driving the millennial regeneration strategies in the area and getting involved with the struggles around a massive sell-off of public assets. The London Particular made two films as part of that project – ostensibly documentaries but more like film essays. One of the biggest problems was that of ‘representing’ working class life in the area whilst avoiding voyeuristic clichés of ‘urban deprivation’, working class ‘authenticity’ or ‘local colour’. The essay film form seemed like a way to show local politics as a systemic process, but this ultimately meant that the films felt quite detached from the social processes they were describing. As the project went on, representing what was going on felt less urgent than becoming directly involved in it, so David got more and more engaged with activism and local working class politics, putting filming aside.

Anja had already established an interest in colliding research and fictional narrative that set the stage for our later films in her work Supernumeraries, which used a Joseph Conrad story and contemporary reportage on the murder of stowaways on container ships. Whilst filming on board a container vessel, she’d been facing similar questions on how to deal with the inherent voyeurism and artifice of filming the crew at work and inserting them into a hypothetical narrative. She ended up training her camera on the architecture and objects on the ship, not the crew, and constructed a narration, partially based on conversations that had remained unrecorded, but ultimately closer to the dream logic of nightmares. Paradoxically, towards the end of the shoot she realised that many of the crew would actually have been happy if she had filmed them, but preferred to remain anonymous where statements on shipping conditions were concerned.

These experiences prompted us to try and explore some of the problems from a different direction—one that might be less earnest, more, dare we say, ‘fun’ and also would allow us to explore situations and histories through recourse to popular genres. The fictional scenarios would act as a screen; participants could be released from their ‘normal’ identities, yet their experiences could be reflected through narrative—perhaps more accurately than documentary form would have allowed.

That said we didn’t go down an open-ended ‘participative’ route. With the films we’ve made together we’ve always worked from a script as a way of making our intentions transparent to whomever we’re working with, although this has often been subject to changes following rehearsals and discussions with those involved. In a way, we found that being clear about where we are standing, and reflecting on actual events in the form of fiction, set certain limitations that were in fact more liberating than a recourse to improvisational and documentary practices. These practices can easily slide into a parasitic relationship with collaborators, who are expected to ‘be themselves’ or offer their creativity up to ‘facilitating’ filmmakers – often with little purchase on the way their contribution will be edited and represented. We would also argue that fiction, allegory and satire were always the more useful and sophisticated tools for political expression and subversion.

How do you see the development of your work with regard to an ethics of representation?

After Polly II and Trail of the Spider, we felt that we were being categorized as having ‘participative’ practice, chiefly one that involved working class communities. Yet we don’t really recognize the idea of ‘community’ as particularly meaningful (outside of dubious ‘regeneration’ discourse). We were aware that in some instances our work was being fetishised by ‘official’ participative art practitioners, and worse, those most comfortable with the pernicious ideologies of ‘inclusion’ and ‘participation’. We ended up turning down some exhibition and commissioning offers because we refused to have their frameworks imposed on what we do.

Ironically, an increasingly public discussion around the instrumentalisation of socially engaged art has made people very cautious about how they speak about it. We had funders insisting that we would not be fitted into some prescribed way of working. However, these supposedly ‘open-ended’ processes tended to obscure ideological assumptions about how one should ‘engage’ or ‘interact’ with ‘ordinary people’. Ultimately the same processes at work in contemporary urban regeneration discourse can be seen in the social art field; agencies often emphasize choice, freedom and experimentation in contrast to an older ‘bureaucratic’ box ticking approach (i.e. you must work with a particular community and achieve particular aims). But in our experience this phoney discourse of openness always tends to obscure reactionary assumptions without being transparent about it. This pseudo-democracy, with all its ‘creative’ posturing, tends to be a way to push through a very pre-set agenda about what could be possible, and what subjectivities are at stake in the process.

In the first two films we were quite careful not to create an over-determined or overly procedural process, and in many ways our methodology has been very ad hoc. We feel that the structured approaches (‘workshopping’ and whatnot) that you see as part of many social art practices tend to resemble the layers of mediation that middle class ‘professionals’ working for the state put between themselves and so-called ‘ordinary’ or working class people. The ‘consultation session’ ends up being a false version of a de-hierarchised space where power discourses and expertise are hidden behind an artificial levelling.

With Trail of the Spider, which essentially dealt with our experiences with Hackney’s politics, we worked with actors, friends and people from the campaigns we’d been involved with. With The Last Days of Jack Sheppard we wanted to shift our focus towards ‘acting’ and representation as a process per se, rather than the productive tensions between an amateur cast and an ‘epic’ genre, so we worked mainly with professional actors, some of whom were highly skilled in 18th Century commedia dell’arte and rhetorical gesture. Polly II and Trail of the Spider had a very organic relationship to what was going on in our political lives at the time. It felt wrong to extend the methods we’d used on those films into some situation that we had no relationship to.

This is a broad question I know, but how do you see your work with regard to aesthetic discourses around realism, modernism and post-modernism?

We were interested in non-documentary approaches to contemporary social problems, and not particularly interested in the increasingly worthy or wearing clichés of realism. We are dealing with a social reality where people’s identity and desire is mediated via popular culture, but one that increasingly reflects a dominant (petit) bourgeois view of the world. We wanted to re-appropriate the epic discourses of cinema and television, and the layers of allegorical associations of certain figures and narrative forms, but re-fashion them to create outcomes that probe into the problems and possibilities of class politics.

We don’t necessarily have a clear idea of where we are heading… In many ways we’ve tried to make work that pleases us, that feels like it’s not entirely bound up with many of the conventional formal approaches in the art world. We feel that a lot of formal approaches to film have kind of become empty vessels: no longer really able to function as critical, but now merely repeated as ossified gestures. In a way, re-opening questions around drama, narrative and performance puts us back within a more mainstream tradition but one that seems less resolved and with greater potentials today. These areas provide a fruitful battleground with many new questions and possibilities, but also they form a path that can lead you away from increasingly introverted or rarified art discourses.

The question of novelty also raises itself here – the contemporary artistic injunction to innovate. Maybe our retrenchment with forms that have been torn up by the trajectory of the avant-garde and have been off limits for a lot of what ‘contemporary art’ sets as its agenda is a symptom of the limited horizons of formal play under capitalism. Art is largely trapped in the same aporias that shaped the avant-garde of modernism – art is anti-art. Since Dada, many of the same fundamental problems seem to recur and delimit a limit-point for bourgeois art. To us, art must proceed with a knowledge of its own supersession, and of the supersession of the categories and social spheres that shape the art world in general. But rather than get endlessly snagged on the impossibility of art a la conceptualism, or sinking into a formalism that has always been the art-market’s default position, we are trying to create work that circumnavigates this. We don’t want to retreat into formalism or ‘culinary’ prettiness but neither do we want our practice to merely announce its own problems and ‘impossibility’. That lends our films a degree of earnestness that makes us uncomfortable, but we would like to make work that could function in competition with ‘popular culture’, and find a broader resonance.

As with your other films, Polly II - Plan for a Revolution in Docklands (2006) and Trail of the Spider (2008), there is a rich seam of research behind Sheppard, which manifests itself via a plethora of textual appropriations, citations and ‘quotations’. This textual analysis runs with the currents of post-modernism in many respects, yet the film is distinguished by a heightened appreciation of the ‘play of signs’ within a world over-determined by capitalist relations (indeed, the conflation of Jack Sheppard’s narrativisation within the context of the South Sea Bubble suggests that this may be the central theme of the film). What is your method of working with archival and historical sources?

We tend to put a lot of different elements into play in the films – we take pleasure in opening up the connections between different orders of material but also enjoy a certain depth of research. These tensions might not be fully legible in the final work but give it a certain integrity which allows discussions to form about the ideas in the piece. We think that the films are entirely legible without accompanying notes, but we’ve always published pamphlets that explore the references for anyone who is interested. Publishing the script for The Last Days of Jack Sheppard was a way to lead back to the historical research – revealing the extent to which the film is almost entirely woven from direct citations and visual references from the period.

We have a certain fascination with fiction and with historical narrative and the way that these can shed light on situations in contemporary politics. We take pleasure in the contradictions between speculative (pulp?) fictions of history and ‘empirical’ or ‘factual’ research but we aren’t trying to draw simplistic relativistic conclusions from this tension between ‘fact’ and fiction. Rather we’re interested in the construction of political discourses, and the mythological dimension to progressive struggles, challenging the authentic bent of many ‘left wing’ ideas. But also, we’re trying to deploy history in a way that is appropriate to film per se, that is, to be aware of the layers of mythology, genre clichés and visual cues available to us, and how these can be recombined to ask new questions.

To what extent, if at all, is your work informed by the Situationist Internationale (SI) practice of ‘detournement’6?

We do tend to re-deploy archival material in textual form or through scenarios. We have appropriated images and music as part of a collaging process, but these elements tend to be used in order to create a contrast with our own footage, and to create a tension with our own ‘amateur’ and slightly clunky reconstructions. Increasingly, a lot of artists seem to trade on the nostalgic aura of archival or appropriated footage rather than actually detourning it. Our ‘re-enactments’ try to preserve the fictional veil between history the present, but also ask whether things could have been otherwise. History is mutable, contingent, subject to change, and we do see it as a struggle for the present.

Many SI practices (like many of Brecht’s practices) are no longer particularly novel and are widely deployed. I suppose we might have more in common with the SI tradition (rather than the general post modern re-purposing and re-contextualising of cultural material) in that we bring certain economic/political questions to bear on our work informed by questions around the legacy of Marxism and class politics. Not that we see our work as ‘political’ per se. In fact, we tire of the ‘political’ claims for contemporary art works. Most often there’s no indication of what the ‘politics’ are. The term is more often used as an empty signifier of some assumed radicalism or vague anti-capitalism, or suggests some variant of discourse/identity politics.

That said, we feel as vexed about many political questions as we do about aesthetic questions. For better or for worse ‘committed’ artists in the past applied themselves in reference to the general presence of class politics in broader society, and also tangentially to politics at an organisational level (even if only through the membership of parties, public support for strikes, etc). In a ‘post-political’ world we have been heavily involved with local struggles and theoretical debates but these have often lacked a broader social movement to back them and give them continuity. If during certain periods we can’t act politically in broader society or feel that we are in a pre-political situation of grounding a new politics, how can our work be said to be ‘political’? Recently we feel that we’re more concerned with the problems of representation per se – in particular the intractable problems that we’ve got ourselves into through trying to explore the class relations of art production and reception in our practice.

In your notes to the script, you cite Christopher Hill and Peter Linebaugh – key figures in the ‘history from below’ school – what influence did their work have on your approach to the Jack Sheppard story?

They have led us to material rather than necessarily shaping our approach. With The Last Days of Jack Sheppard we wanted to pit Linebaugh’s passionate, somewhat romanticized account of the emergent working class of the early 18th Century7 against empiricist history, via a discussion of fiction and representation.

Linebaugh in particular has some problems in terms of projecting certain ideas and ideals that weren’t yet historically possible onto the periods he describes. However, he does deploy theory to create a class history that demonstrates certain potentials and possibilities. The empiricist historians we spoke to during our research were sniffy about Linebaugh’s ‘committed’ and passionate approach, but they also tended to have a somewhat reductive approach to history and lots of hidden baggage attached to their apparently ‘common sense’ position. So the film staged a battle between these two positions. We rooted many of our scenarios in empirically verifiable facts (dates, places, actions, etc, are very accurate), but created a fantastical, speculative mythology that would raise the political questions through theatrical spectacle.

Rather than singling out particular historians and the pros and cons of their perceived tendencies, what really interested us was the contestation between camps and the way history is mediated and constructed more or less consciously around ideological positions. The problem with “common sense” is that it sides with the status quo, and frequently tends to eschew critical analysis in favour of the atomized minutiae of ‘facts’, themselves manipulated by the system that recorded them in the first place. While dreading the romantic idealism that can creep into some of the ‘history from below’ approaches, they are operating against history as ‘written by the victors’, and as such form crucial antidotes to historic and political amnesia.

I suppose Hill’s work on the emergence of British capitalism as a battle of several forces also interests us, as it does ask questions about possibilities, lost traditions. But our interest in history is probably as much to do with understanding the origins of antagonisms that still shape the contemporary world.

Accepting these provisos, did you see the Jack Sheppard story as a chance to contest the naturalized narrative of the inception of high-finance from the perspective of a ‘history from below’? Jack’s irreverent refusal of labour seems to cut right to the origins of capitalism – the attempt to valorize itself through the regulation of the poor and the formalisation of the wage-labour construct…

Yes and no… We definitely enjoyed the idea that the public’s reaction to Jack’s final escape was a form of refusal; a week of idleness where historical accounts tell us that the gentry couldn’t get workers to lift a finger, so involved were they in speculating on Jack’s future. However we didn’t want to portray an ‘authentic’ grounded Jack against a mendacious ‘speculative’ Defoe. Rather, we wanted to show the historic limitations to both their positions. As part of a proletariat in becoming, without the scope to get a sense of itself and its power, Jack represents a set of desires that cannot find a clearly articulated expression yet. Defoe might even be seen as part of the progressive phase of bourgeois endeavor – opening up new possibilities and problems...

The question of didacticism might be raised in relation to your work. There is a consistent position of engagement with autonomous class resistance and struggle against capitalist relations. Frederic Jameson long ago discussed the way that postmodernism tends to reflect and reproduce the de-politicised cultural logic of advanced late capitalism. In this context, an overtly political practice – one that attempts to take a critical distance from the fragmented flux of the present in order to posit a hypotheses linking various historical phenomena under an abstract concept, e.g. the notion of commodity relations, a mode of production, or capitalism – tends to run the risk of falling victim to what Jameson presciently called “the taboo on totality”8. To what extent are you consciously dealing with such criticism?

There’s obviously a need to critique ‘vulgar’ Marxism, however the critique of ‘totality’ tends to base itself on the crudest possible, un-dialectical reading of what a concept like ‘totality’ might mean within a Marxist approach. Contemporary relativism is the cousin of the ‘totalitarianism’ implicitly assumed within (bad) Marxism. They’re both un-dialectical approaches that produce a sclerotic view of social relations and have terrible consequences. But that aside, although we certainly deal with class political themes we don’t feel – particularly in this rather bleak and uncertain period of history – that we can even begin to do more than raise them as questions. None of our films can do much more than outline the contradictions and problematics of these categories in the present period.

Obviously this puts us in with the dominant current of contemporary art – the perpetual process of ‘asking questions’ and ‘getting interested in…’ in an open ended, relativistic kind of way. But the fact that our questions are couched within a particular set of concerns associated with the political as we’ve known it in the 20th Century, seems to set us out as downright didactic in a period where most art has no relationship to radical politics. However, we also reject the flipside to the lack of radical politics in the mainstream art world – the domination of what passes for ‘radical politics’ by aestheticised practices (e.g. carnivalesque symbolic protests, activism as art, etc.). Faced with this situation we tend to end up agreeing that aesthetics and politics make very poor bedfellows. We’ve always liked Shklovsky’s inversion of the old dictum, “for the sake of art keep politics out of it”. He proposed instead: “in the name of propaganda, take the art out of propaganda”9. That statement kind of echoes our feelings when we’ve been involved with political struggles at a local level – that artists and media types are particularly quick to try and leverage authentic struggle for their own ends rather than to actually engage with the particular issues of organization and resistance. In those periods we’ve definitely set aside our artistic identities.

Finally we’ve become interested in the way that ‘political art’ has tended to fail because it cannot accurately apprehend and represent the complex abstractions of capitalism, reducing complex mediations to crude allegories or moral categories. Maybe this problem is inherent to the nature of representation per se. This problem has emerged as a dominant concern in our work and to some extent is one of the themes behind Jack Sheppard, where we tried to put a number of terms in play so that the viewer might begin to tease out the mediations between them. But it is also one of the principal concerns for dealing with Bertold Brecht in a forthcoming film. Brecht was very aware of the pitfalls of representing the abstract relations of capitalism in a concrete form but he still fell foul of Adorno’s charge that his plays often fail to adequately articulate the processes they claim to depict and reveal.

Talking of Brecht… the non-naturalistic performances in the film are excellent. Can you discuss your pronounced use of gestural modes in more detail? Also, how does your work with professional actors in this film differ from your previous work with predominantly non-professional actors?

We’ve taken different approaches with different films: Polly II was all about soap opera modes of acting combined with Brechtian devices; Trail of the Spider introduced a short circuit between the players’ own lives and experiences and the characters they were playing in a very intuitive way that was very untutored (whilst also parodying styles of deadpan and melodrama in ‘Western’ forms). With Jack Sheppard we were much more conscious about performance and acting. We haven’t self consciously followed Bressonian or Brechtian methods, or, for that matter, fully developed our own way of working with actors, but we were definitely after a non-realist, non-psychologised, ‘epic’ form of acting. We wanted to create a sense of historicity but also a sense of artifice, and we did look at Bresson’s shooting methods to highlight gesture and instrumentality. We tried different means to achieve that: working with actors trained in commedia dell’arte, 18th Century gestural acting, and in the case of Mark Tintner who played Jack Sheppard – boxing. We worked hard to purge all learnt theatrical flourishes from actors’ performances, introducing archaic language but also anachronisms. We are not obsessed with a phoney re-creation of ‘authenticity’ but rather wanted to highlight that while the subjective/affective experience of a particular historic period will be forever closed to us, this does not mean that it’s lost its relevance for our critical understanding of our contemporary condition.

What I was trying to get at was the bodily relationship between subject and history. The way that hierarchical social relations embed themselves in gesture…

We were interested in the two extremes of Gesture. Jack Sheppard had a stutter and was said to speak with ‘the motion of striking’ and we speculated that the social convulsions of the early 18th century would have produced chaotic physical manifestations in the emerging proletariat (something similar happened during the early 20th century in response to the new velocities of mass industrial society). We then recognised this could be contrasted to the highly choreographed gestural language of the elite.

We were fortunate enough to find the actor Rufus Graham to help us incorporate this. He had trained in the classic rhetorical gestures that would have been part of the basic education of anyone from the upper classes in that period. These gestures were based on Roman figures, revitalized in the Renaissance and dominant till the late 19th Century. Movement and deportment would have been a crucial part of ‘grammar’ – and Rufus demonstrated how the same gestures can be seen in paintings and drama as well as politics of that period. He gave a talk at the CCA in September that really shed light on the gestures embedded in the film, particularly in Guy Henderson’s performance as Applebee. We allowed these social protocols to dictate his motivations rather than a modern ‘psychologised’ approach.

In 1970, Brian Henderson, posited the lateral tracking shot deployed by Jean-Luc Godard as an aesthetic tactic with the potential of moving cinema, “towards a non-bourgeois camera style”. Of course nothing of the sort has occurred, but I think what he meant was that Godard’s cinema tropes, like Brecht’s theatre techniques, attempted to block an audience’s easy identification with the characters as individual heroes, in order to reveal more of the material conditions of their life. To what extent did Brecht’s influence, and cinematic appropriations of his methods, have on your overall aesthetic approach?

Ironically, it’s only now that we have been poring over Brecht’s writing in preparation for a film project about him that we realize how much we have re-trodden similar ground. Perhaps this is because Brecht is already fully incorporated into our culture, or because we share a similar set of interests and dispositions. Either way, our new film looking at Brecht is a vehicle for us to confront the problem of acting whilst also dealing with his methods as historically situated. Acting has been a real difficult area in past films – in terms of getting good performances that feel new, different, assured but not too professionalised or slick – and this is really because we are still working through these problems in a directorial sense. By confronting Brecht head on, we want to make our selves more conscious of our own process, while also asking questions about the relevance of his approaches today.

The idea of a “non-bourgeois camera style” for us leads back to once radical but now ossified formal gestures – is this really an intrinsic formal operation? In Jack Sheppard the way of lighting, framing and tracking originated more specifically from the idea that the ideologically motivated separation of high and low culture performed in the 18th Century imposed certain conventions on performers and audience. These conventions, of course, included the ‘fourth wall’, the imposition of silence, and a move away from the collective workshop, ‘troupe’, and anonymous authorship, to a more centralized concentration of power in the hands of the author or director. To some extent these conventions could be seen as rarefying and reducing culture to the status of a commodity for consumption. Meanwhile, refusing the idea of the individual hero in favour of a whole visual and social mis-en-scene, or vignette, is something that drew us to Hogarth and Breughel – whom Brecht also loved.

The remnants of the set – installed together with the film – and the deliberate decision to make actors address the camera directly (rather than using more mainstream over-the-shoulder & point of view shots) were meant to function to some extent as reminders of older forms of dramatic representation prior to the ‘fourth wall’ being drawn up and silence falling over the auditorium.

It’s interesting to us the way that Brecht has been kind of absorbed by mainstream theatre and film and then forgotten. So many of his methods are unconsciously adopted yet ultimately there is little sign of his influence anywhere today. We’re trying to hold out against the naturalist approach that you see in most contemporary arthouse films. A recent example is Alexander McQueen’s Hunger, which seemed very conservative in its use of standard ‘humanist’ art-house tropes, and its reference to interior states or transcendent modes of being. However, many attempts by independent cinema to escape naturalism just come off as kooky and affected, probably because of their lack of any relation to a political register. It’s curious to us that today Hollywood seems to get closer to the kind of epic, non-naturalistic modes that interest us, for instance in the films of Paul Verhoeven.

In many ways ‘epic’ theatre just gets you out of the rather unpleasant assumptions that are bound up with humanism – its reassuring positing of a centred human (bourgeois) subject, and psychological responses. Psychologised, sentimentalized states are part of the post-war era – a creation of the subject of liberal, consumer capitalism. Surely at some level epic is just the mode of late-capitalist subjects, and serves them more faithfully now that we are are all ‘decentred’! Brecht even realized that at the time he was writing – he was seeking dramatic modes appropriate to the ‘New Man’ and new times.

Your first two films seemed more explicitly ‘popular’, working their way through radical politics, sci-fi, western and television genres. This film seems more explicitly bounded as an ‘art film’, shown as an installation within art institutions. Yet it retains a strong political content. Can the projection of the film within the gallery/art institutional context be seen as a retreat from a shrinking screening circuit? What do you hope for in the future?

We actually felt that each film developed and commented on the previous works. The Jack Sheppard film is to some extent a meditation on the problem of ‘collaboration’ and ‘participative art’ in a situation of inequality (see above) and the origins of contemporary art discourses. As such, it did address itself more to the gallery. Of course we’d like our work to be more widely available but broadcasting is a very closed world these days and the ‘film’ world is increasing conservative in its ‘populism’. We are interested in those contexts but only if we don’t have our hands tied. The gallery and art context still represents a space of immense freedom compared with anywhere else, but we’ve never been 100% comfortable with playing exclusively to that audience.

Some work tries to deal with the politics of distribution but at the end of the day we are quite content-led in our approach. Trail of the Spider did have some extraordinary public screenings in Hackney and we felt we’d really achieved an audience for the film that we wanted – however that was very bound up with the themes and context of the film and we don’t feel that we can repeat that every time. At the moment, certain lines of enquiry are informing our work – the Brecht film is also not so ‘explicitly popular’ but allows us to work through specific questions about performance. However, we want to return to some other strands in our work in the future, and there are other ‘genres’ that we are interested in mining.

Notes

1.   Cited in, Benjamin, Walter, ‘Illuminations’, Pimlico, 1999, p.251.
2.   For a stinging critique of this tendency, see, Home, S, ‘Bubonic Plagiarism: Stewart Home on art, politics & appropriation’, pamphlet, Sabotage Editions, London, 2006.
3.   See: http://www.metamute.org/en/Polly-II
4.   See: http://www.metamute.org/en/content/duck_you_regeneration_sucker
5.   http://thelondonparticular.org/items/video.html
6.   Detournement is defined in the Internationale Situationniste (1959) as, “the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble”, and “a negation of the value of the previous organization of expression”. http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/3.detourn.htm
7.   Linebaugh, Peter, ‘The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in Eighteenth Century’, Verso Books, 2006.
8.   Jameson, F, Marxism and Postmodernism, in, ‘The Cultural Turn: Selected Writing on the Postmodern, 1983-1998’, Verso, p.33-49.
9.   Shklovsky, V, in Pounding Nails with a Samovar an essay from ‘Knight’s Move’, Dalkey Archive Scholarly Series, 2005.

 

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Locus Of Control
Eddie Molloy

Prelude

As Belfast continues to travel the seemingly inexorable road toward ‘normality’, ‘stability’ and ‘peace’, the past dies. Or, more accurately, it becomes delocated. Delocation does not destroy the past but rather shifts it, sanitises it, builds over it. Is this the true meaning of ‘progress’, setting adrift the present from our shameful past, itself constructed from a conflict that had become shockingly banal? If so, then what we (Belfast) are experiencing now is something not delocated from the past but a process that has never stopped.

Did not Henry Joy McCracken (that ubiquitous figure on the Belfast scene) proclaim unswerving faith in that illustrious idea?1 What other grand notions could have filled the mind of that great bourgeois Edward Harland as he presided over Belfast’s industrial heyday while the Socialists and Papishts were beaten on the docks and burnt from their homes? Progress! Aye, a noble idea. Sure was it not progress too that inspired the young British technocrats high on LeCorbusier during the heady days of mass housing, when the working class were no longer to be feared but something to be controlled, catalogued and collated in accordance with their ‘naturally’ conceived divisions.

And now, it can perhaps be said, Progressus Vicit: the ancient divisions have been overcome in an orgy of vulgar consumerism. United not by the common name of ‘Irishman’ but rather by the sub-nomen ‘consumer’. The End of History. A future defined by the objects of intended acquisition or intangible ‘lifestyle indicators’ such as ‘gym membership’, ‘time shares’ or the accumulation of ‘air miles’. Past is become invisible:

“I used to live here.”
“You used to live under the motorway? You must have been very poor mummy.”

How can anything intrude into such a timeless zone? A politics without history lacks all but the bluster of an interminable, mindless discourse. It ceases to exist in all but the minds of its supposed practitioners.

It is here that art appears once again on the fringes of society’s hetero-mediated self-representation. A society that believes itself to have vanquished history or at least that it is now strong enough to confine history’s existence to certain places and moments where it can be suitably ignored and forced once again into intermittent invisibility.

The articulation of the inaudible, the visualisation of the invisible, the materialisation of a collective memory subsumed by a mountain of neon-encrusted guilt, facing the present with all the force of the future…

I. Ideology, Physicality & Development

“We transform ourselves through transforming our world (as Marx insisted).”
David Harvey (2001) Spaces of Capital (London: Routledge) p.24

To locate ‘control’ it is necessary to peer beyond the glass and concrete facades of the modern city and look to the configurations that arise in the swirling mist of a forgotten and often distorted history. Not only do we transform ourselves through the forging of our environment but we can be forged through the transformation of that environment. Although this is clear, the role ideology (overt and implicit) plays in this process is not. A town so dominated by and bound up with the history of Unionism cannot then in its physical and structural elements be immune from that stated ideology. Nor is Unionism itself a free-floating self-contained body of dogma that stands aloof from any external influence, but rather it itself operates as the articulation of a certain self-justificatory Weltanschauung of a section of the Belfast bourgeoisie. Dependent on the contingent circumstances, it regards itself on the one hand as the guarantor of civil and religious liberty in this British dominion2 and, on the other, as the guarantor of the ethno-religious hegemony of Protestants ensured through an exclusionary all-class alliance.3

The primacy of ‘control’ in this ideological configuration is clear: first, the control of the majority of the working class through a religio-cultural identification with the State itself and, second, the maintenance of an economic environment conducive to high rates of exploitation (due to the depression of wages created by the existence of a Catholic underclass which served as a reserve pool of labour).4 The space of the city then becomes a constant battleground of transgression and manipulation leading to an inevitable carve-up as zones are marked not only by social status but by allegiance. This process (begun at the very beginning of Belfast as an industrialised city) continues right up to the present day as ‘peace lines’ are still erected in the name of social stability.

The increased levels of ghettoisation that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s were indicative not only of heightened dissatisfaction with the status quo by all sections of the working class but it crucially signified the failure of Unionism to contain the tensions implicit in the foundation of Northern Ireland. The corporatist ideology that informed its functioning could no longer exclude the growing and increasingly educated Catholic population whose very articulation of itself signified a radically altered public. The ‘subjectification’ of this section of the population gave rise to a properly political situation in which the previously un(ac)counted stepped into the breach of what has been called the ‘empty universal’5, in which a certain section of the people invoke the mantle of ‘the people’, thereby displacing the supposed legitimacy of the existing order. Rancière characterises the politicisation of the situation (i.e. the challenging of the status quo by an internal albeit excluded portion of the population) thus:

“… it is through the existence of this part of those who have no part, of this nothing that is all, that the community exists as a political community.”6

Excursus I. Sailortown

The history of Sailortown in the Belfast docklands reflects these trends clearly. For it was here that a section of Belfast’s maritime working class experienced the industrialisation, pogroms, hardship and eventual delocation that informed the history of Belfast’s working class population. The forcible exit from the east of the city where industry was strongest; depression and unemployment; solidarity and community; finally, forced dispersion around the city. The destruction of Sailortown in the 1960s illustrated the adaptation of official state ideology to the conditions of modernity in which the values of community and solidarity were subordinated to those of individualism and consumption. The exchange of Sailortown for the M3 was a powerful metaphor for the values that were coming to dominate the perception of space in the city. As Guy Debord noted in 1959:

“The breaking up of the dialectic of the human milieu in favor of automobiles (the projected freeways in Paris will entail the demolition of thousands of houses and apartments although the housing crisis is continually worsening) masks its irrationality under pseudopractical justifications. But it is practically necessary only in the context of a specific social set-up. Those who believe that the particulars of the problem are permanent want in fact to believe in the permanence of the present society.”7

“In this way, necessity becomes implicit in the official discourse to ensure that no other option seems possible. The importance of the task at hand will therefore override all other considerations because history and the impermanence of the particular circumstances that exist at any one time appear as fictions whose use is long past.”8

This is how Sailortown could be destroyed without consultation and even with the trust of the inhabitants.

II. Culture, Hegemony & Resistance

“In losing their ignorance, the bourgeoisie have become impenitently malign.”
Theodor W. Adorno (2005) Minima Moralia (London: Verso) p.34

However, the ghettoisation of Belfast was by this stage firmly entrenched. The geographic structures implying power relations old or new began to serve a radically altered purpose as zones that emerged as accidents of history started to develop a community possessing subjective agency. This process too was developed and reflected on a physical basis through the visual self-representation of communities that were becoming more and more solidified through political actions and allegiance.

The painting of murals was central to this process of self-creation and self-representation. Indeed, the existence of such displays transformed the very nature of the place that was inhabited: ‘it is the public space in which the [mural as] artefact is sited that is changed.’9

So, the existence of murals as the physical expression of the community also allows the community to transform itself. This does not imply however that what had developed were homogenous communal blocs acting in authoritarian unity, rather (as Harvey points out10) there exists a dialectical relationship between community formation and the institutionalisation of that community. Such a dialectic creates an internally dynamic process of formation, expression and supercession of the origins of the community itself which persist through often heroic founding myths that serve to justify the authorities indigenous to the community. This process is also replicated at the level of the physical, i.e. in the fluctuating persistence of the mural through time:

“Although the painting of a mural may appear to constitute the finished artefact, it actually may be just the beginning of a complex social life, which may well continue long after the original painting itself has been over-painted or destroyed.”11

The life of the mural as it is reinvigorated by the community provides a potent reminder of the possibility of that community fading away or losing relevance to those who construct it. Its physical nature betrays an underlying fragility that is exposed to shifts in values and the supposed imperatives of economics.

Excursus II. Barracks

“To dedicate a new school is not the same as to convert a military fortress into a school. We intend to continue converting even the small barracks into schools, because every town no matter how small, had military barracks.”12

Throughout Belfast the British military presence looms large in the form of barracks (some empty some occupied). In Andersonstown, the barracks was closed in 2005 but its status is still contested by the local community who have repeatedly demanded (through community groups, political representatives and popular mobilisation) that the ground on which it stood be handed over to the community as a whole. However in recent years the Minister for Social Development has twice attempted to allow the space to be acquired privately, most conspicuously by the Carvill Group.13

The continued resistance to the Andersonstown Barracks site remaining outside the control of the community reflects the process of forming and maintaining a community mentioned above. The creation of such a subjectified public demonstrates the impetus to maintain a physical community of resistance that demands to recreate itself and its environment on its own terms. The physical nature of this process becomes clearer due to the rapidly changing landscape in Belfast. That a community can articulate (and recreate) itself on such a basis also points to the fragility of the processes that give rise to spatial conflicts like this one. For through such a struggle, the reality of the changing shape of Belfast becomes apparent, and the fictions that inform its seemingly timeless centre are exposed.

III. Middle Class Ascendancy, or the Dominance of a Fiction

“… the ‘middle class’ is, in its very ‘real’ existence, the embodied lie, the denial of antagonism… [it] presents itself as the neutral common ground of Society.”
Slavoj Zizek (2000) The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso) p.187.

The ‘common ground of Society’ in Belfast is, according to conventional wisdom, anything but ‘neutral’. Contestation and transgression are the watchwords of present-day Belfast as consumerism attempts to bring everybody into its indiscriminate embrace. The emergence of Belfast as a focus for production and consumption can be directly traced through the development of the ‘peace process.’ Richard Haas (then US Government’s representative in Belfast), in an address to certain businessmen in 2002, highlighted the great increase in production stemming from the ‘peace process’: foreign investment has created 31,000 new jobs since 1998; Northern Ireland’s manufacturing output has risen by 25% in the past few years; and exports have doubled in the past ten years.

Crucially, he also highlighted the role the bourgeoisie play in structuring (both economically and physically) the ‘new Belfast’:

“…we have seen time and again that business leaders constitute some of the strongest voices urging Northern Ireland’s politicians to do the right thing.”

“Business men and women focus year in and year out on the bottom line; in doing so, they probably best understand what can be gained – and lost – from any given situation. Economic progress is measured in profit margins, productivity, returns on investment, and other tangible indices. This progress manifests itself in the wider community through higher incomes for families, home and car sales, more theatres, shops and restaurants in thriving neighbourhoods. In both these realms – that of the economy and that of the community – we have seen direct benefits from the peace and stability created by the Good Friday Agreement.”14

Peace and stability, then, form the basis from which a successful consumption-driven society is established. The language used in Haas’ statement is clearly illustrative of the nature of the ‘right thing’, as he calls it. For the ‘right thing’ in this context is clearly the ending of widespread, non-state violence15 so that an arena might be created that would allow a correctly consumerist model to arise.16

What then emerges from the economic development that corroborates, justifies and defends the ‘peace process’ is an arena that in fact disguises the social relations that sustain it. Thus the reality of antagonism is automatically expelled from the city centre as public sphere. The intrusion of the political is prohibited by the instrumentalisation of the public sphere for the purpose of a consumption that effectively ‘de-publicises’ the public. This de-publicisation has a number of facets. Firstly it locates the coming together of disparate persons into a unity only by dispelling any intrinsic commonality by replacing it with an extrinsic identity forged through the experience of sociality as mass consumption. Secondly, it supplants the critical (that is to say democratic) potential of an experience of the public. Such a critico-democratic potential exists in the very possibility provided by the coming together of disparate individuals into a public mass that by its own existence legitimates and/or challenges dominant ideas and institutions. In this way the mass or active public is replaced by the homogenising aggregation of individuals as undifferentiated consumers.

Furthermore it should be clear how this corresponds to the intermittently hysterical praise of the stability provided by the ‘peace process’ and the all but non-existent critique. To this fact can be added to the striking absence of any real debate on the causes of the current economic crisis and its relation with the political institutions and policies that have been followed with so much élan by the political and business elite. It must then be understood that what is happening here is very much tied up with the process of the de-publicising of the public mentioned above. For only in this way is it possible to appreciate the wilful blindness that has infected the entire body politic in this time of economic woe and the terminal inability of politicians in Ireland to come up even with a coherent criticism that does not entirely reek of crass opportunism, never mind an economic plan that does not seek recovery in the exploitative speculation that characterises mainstream economic and political discourse.

In terms of the ‘visual’, this process can be seen in the fact that displays that on a superficial level may seem to have some political import (such as the anti-war demonstrations that have occurred occasionally over the past number of years) are met with placid support at best or more often with total disinterest by people who are after all in the centre of Belfast to consume. Thus what may seem to be political becomes in fact a mask with which to disguise the absence of the political. And it is this very absence that defines the public, defines it in the sense that it negates it.

This is not to say however that the real antagonisms that underlie the politico-economic fabric have evaporated. Rather, they have expression in the persistent sectarianism that recently resulted in the murder in Coleraine of Kevin McDaid as two police officers stood nearby; circumstances disturbingly similar to those in the murder of Robert Hamill in Portadown twelve years ago, and only days after the public inquiry into Hamill’s death heard evidence of police collusion. The recent spate of racist attacks in Belfast further confirms the violent reality underlying increasingly hollow official statements heralding official recovery and political progress.

The question then becomes one of whether it is possible to challenge the violent, exploitative nature of the status quo at all, or whether the retreat into sectarianism and racism are inevitable outcomes of a situation whose own logic demands the eradication of these features yet depends on them for its very existence. This reality is evident in the marketing of Northern Ireland as an essentially low wage economy17, a situation directly derived from a sectarianised conflict that both divided the working class and created a climate of underinvestment.

Excursus III. New Protest in Belfast (RIR / No Bush)

When the Royal Irish Regiment paraded through the streets of Belfast on 2nd November 2008, the notion of the police as arbiters of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ (le partage du sensible) in Rancière’s schema18 becomes apparent. For in calling the demonstration, the British Ministry of Defence clearly saw such a parade as apolitical and so suitable for the public realm. The intrusion of the political (in the sense of an aggrieved and historically located subject) into the public sphere was thus prohibited and confined to the limits of the city centre through the rulings of state agencies enforced by the PSNI.

This process of the expulsion and persistent intrusion of the political is mirrored in Belfast artist Christoff Gillen’s recent work on the Black Mountain, at the northwestern fringe of the city. Rather than being forced out of the consumer-driven public sphere, Gillen’s work enunciates into the public sphere from afar, thus replicating and subverting the forcible removal of the political from the public. The re-located (and so re-created) public becomes the people of Belfast willing to engage with a visualised text that articulates the absent public without becoming lost of the privatised public of the centre. In this sense the de-publicisation of the centre becomes the vehicle for the re-location of the (political) public. The ever-nascent public then repeatedly attempts to overcome its destruction by insisting on being heard on its own terms. 

What Gilen’s work evinces then is a referral to a point in the past when that same mountain was the focus of a public in action, evoking the formation of the United Irishmen on nearby Cavehill or the use of the mountain as a signifier of a community’s support for the republican hunger strikers in 1981. On these occasions a line was drawn that marked the transformation of a people from subjected mass to subjectified agent. The significance of such allusions today must surely rest in the stultifying atmosphere of a consumer-led strategy for growth in an entrenchedly sectarian environment (an aspect further highlighted by the location of his work directly above the so-called ‘peace line’ separating the Ballygomartin and Whiterock Roads) and the dissolution (though not disappearance) of the prospect of reclaiming the space lost from the public in the name of a universal yet concrete enterprise.

IV. Space, Conflict & Art, or Towards the Future

In light of the continued economic decline, rising unemployment and halted development, it is not without interest to reflect on Haas’ words to the Belfast bourgeoisie in 2002. Although it was clear that ‘peace and stability’ would be necessary for a properly thriving capitalist economy in Belfast, the other factors at work in such a building process (such as the concrete potential and structural necessity of crisis enmeshed within the very framework of capitalism itself) were flagrantly ignored. The concomitant suppression of the expression of individual and cultural difference as anything other than oppositional identity that is inscribed into this process further exposes the vacuity of the rhetoric of progress and normality.

The reality of the situation continues to reside at street-level where the hegemonic ideology is both affirmed and resisted in a continual interplay of images, texts and fragments whose very existence attests to the conflictual nature at the heart of reality in present-day Belfast. The official non-existence of that ideology is attested to by the facts of loyalist decommissioning and Sinn Fein/DUP scrambling for US dollars. The reality is however made clear by the new inscriptions that dominate working class communities where naked sectarianism (in the form of graffiti stating ‘KAH’ or ’KAT’19) vies for importance with the affirmation of the supremacy of the (secular) ‘Hoods’20 – a final victory over divisive ideology!

The destruction of the public (as self-articulating agent) then forms the background to today’s visual culture (itself dominated by an aesthetically hollow consumerist bulk) as different ways are increasingly sought to overcome the historic failures of emancipatory politics. Where these are to be found can be seen in the fragments of resistance that litter our streets, in the oppositional and the still-existent communities that mobilise against the privatisations of space which remain central to dominant narratives of ‘development.’ It remains to be seen however what role the disused and abandoned building sites will play in this coming dispensation; and whether developer-in-chief Barry Gilligan21 will find any contradiction between this role, and his position of chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Notes
1.   McCracken was one of the founders of the United Irishmen, leading them in the Battle of Antrim in 1798. He was hanged by the Market House in the city centre.
2.   “Northern Ireland is the one part of the United Kingdom which has a written constitution - the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. This Act specifically prohibits the Northern Ireland Parliament from making any laws which endow one religion or discriminate against another. Any such Act could be challenged in the courts and ruled to be inoperative. A similar prohibition applies to executive acts.
In effect, the Government is not entitled to do what Parliament is not authorised to permit it to do. If there were such illegal actions by the Government, any person has the right and the opportunity to challenge them before the Courts.” Ulster Unionist Party (n.d. 1968?) Northern Ireland Fact and Falsehood: A frank look at the present and the past. (Belfast: Ulster Unionist Party). http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/discrimination/quotes.htm
3.   As Craig insisted: “All I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State.” Quoted in Jonathan Bardon (1992) A History of Ulster. (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press) pp. 538-539.
5.   Slavoj ?i?ek (2000) The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso) p.179ff.
6.   Jacques Rancière (1999) Disagreement (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press) p. 10
7.   Guy Debord, Situationist Theses on Traffic, see: http://libcom.org/library/internationale-situationiste-3-article-2
8.   Herbert Marcuse (2002) One Dimensional Man (London: Routledge) p.97. He points out the danger of such technical rationality when he writes, “If the linguistic behaviour blocks conceptual development, if it militates against abstraction and mediation, if it surrenders to the immediate facts, it repels recognition of the factors behind the facts, and thus repels recognition of the facts, and of their historical content.”
9.   Neil Jarman, Painting Landscapes: the place of murals in the symbolic construction of urban spaces http://www.cain.ulst.ac.uk/bibdbs/murals/jarman.htm
10. David Harvey (2001) Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) p.192
11. Neil Jarman loc. cit.
12. Fidel Castro (1961) http://lanic.utexas.edu/project/castro/db/1961/19610128.html
13. See: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ni/?id=2008-11-10.8.13 for details.
14. See: http://www.state.gov/s/p/rem/15318.htm
15. It is interesting to note in this context that later in his statement (ibid.), Haas sees the “normalisation” of the British military presence as a prerequisite for “moving the peace process forward.”
16. See Jean Baudrillard (2005) The System of Objects (London: Verso) passim.
17. http://www.investni.com/index/locate/why_northern_ireland/competitive_costs.htm
18. Jacques Rancière (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum) p. 3, p 70.
19. “Kill All Huns [Protestants]/ Kill All Taigs [Catholics].
20. The most common annotation of this is the ubiquitous U[p]T[he]H[oods].
21. Gilligan is the Director of Big Picture Developments, who were responsible for a major apartment development at the former Ormeau Bakery in south Belfast. Gilligan / BPD also own important sites across the city including the Crumlin Road Courthouse, which was sold by the Northern Ireland Courts Service for £1, and has now been destroyed by fire.

 

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When and why did the Russian Revolution go wrong?
Brian Pearce, with commentary by Terry Brotherstone

The Russian Revolution in Retreat 1920-1924: the Soviet workers and the new Communist elite
Simon Pirani, Routledge (London) 2008
ISBN: 978-0-415-43703-5
no. 45 in Routledge’s series of Russian and European studies.

In November 2008, Brian Pearce died, aged 93, at his north London home.1 This won’t mean much to most Variant readers. But Pearce’s life – largely unsung beyond a substantial circle of friends, intellectual and political contacts, and aficionados of the art of scholarly translation2 – deserves to be studied by everyone who thinks the lessons of the political tragedies of the 20th century must inform the making of the 21st. One of Pearce’s last articles was a review for Variant of Simon Pirani’s heroically researched The Russian Revolution in Retreat 1920-1924. The subject was of close personal interest to the reviewer as he reflected on his own life and the history he had lived through. The review follows, but first some context.

Born in 1915, Pearce’s life coincided with, and outlasted the long working-out of, the Russian Revolution of October 1917 – for many the defining political event of the 20th century. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain as a London history student in the mid-1930s. He considered fighting with the International Brigades in Spain and later felt guilty about not having gone.3 After war service that took him to the working-class north of England, Northern Ireland and the Far East,4 he was for some years an important member of the now-famous Communist Party Historians’ Group.5 After a short post-war spell in the civil service, he became a professional Communist – first on the Daily Worker, then with the Anglo-Soviet Friendship Society,6 then as a teacher of English in the Soviet and Eastern European embassies in London.

Pearce was one of those who left the CPGB in the mid-1950s, thinking that the revelations in Soviet Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ to the 1956 20th Communist Party of the Soviet Union congress, lifting a corner of the veil over Stalin’s crimes, and the ruthless crushing of the Hungarian Revolution by the Red Army in the autumn, marked – at least so far as its contribution to human progress was concerned – the end of the road for official ‘Communism’. He had joined the Party when the euphoria over the Soviet Union expressed in the 1920s by the American journalist, Lincoln Steffens – “I have seen the future and it works” – was still current; and many young intellectuals, appalled at the waste and human misery which capitalism offered, saw Communism as the only alternative to mass unemployment and fascist dictatorship.

Pearce’s particular political contribution after 1956 – and the main reason why reflection on his life matters today – was to insist on the importance of coming to terms with the history of Communism. Many who left the CPGB (those who did not renounce socialism altogether) made careers in the Labour Party or turned to the peace movement under the banner of ‘socialist humanism’, even the historians amongst them seeking to put their own immediate past behind them rather than to analyse the roots of Stalinism’s betrayals.7 Pearce was determined to face the record, including his own. He had actively, and as he now saw it cynically, promoted the illusion that Stalin’s Russia was being run according to socialist principles. He had often, in what he wrote, hinted at things that he knew sat ill with that picture, but had submitted to Party censorship.

When the CPGB began, after initial expressions of concern, to put back in place its more or less uncritical support for the Soviet Union and its pragmatic rewritings of ‘Communist’ history, Pearce decided that he had already, as he put it, “swallowed too many toads”. Not only would he swallow no more: as someone trained in historical method and honest dealing with evidence, he would confront the past as an essential part of rethinking communist politics for the future.8

For many years it seemed a thankless task, leading down several cul-de-sacs. Pearce was with Gerry Healy’s Trotskyist group when it became the Socialist Labour League in 1959 but soon left, though his essays on British Communist history remained of great value and he continued to do important translation work.9 Then, in 1985, amidst lurid sexual scandal surrounding its leader and the exposure of political bankruptcy during the great miners’ strike, came the shattering of what was by then Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party. A few years later, the world context changed with, in 1989-91, what is lazily and misleadingly described as the ‘collapse of communism’ – more accurately the end of the Stalinist and post-Stalin bureaucratic system. All this allowed Pearce and others to renew relationships cut off by Healy’s determined sectarianism and inability to think (or allow thought) beyond the paradigm of 1917 and its aftermath. Pearce followed with interest and played some part in the rethinking that began.

This is the context of his review of Simon Pirani’s pioneering book – the first fully to exploit the Russian archives to access the mentality of workers in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution. I asked Brian to write it after a discussion about another book, by a comrade from the CPGB, the 1956 split and the early SLL; Cliff Slaughter. Pearce had appreciated Slaughter’s Not Without a Storm: towards a communist manifesto for the age of globalisation, particularly its last chapter – ‘The twentieth century: a hypothesis’10 – but had not discussed it directly with the author. I set up a meeting, one purpose of which was to prompt Pearce to expand the end of his review of Pirani’s book. Alas, he died too soon. The review appears here as written.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and was succeeded by a reign of ‘gangster capitalism’, many in the West looked back on it in sadness and disappointment. But some had feared for it well before that downfall. A revolution, which had started out under slogans of freedom and equality, promising a new and more just social order, had, as they saw it, already degenerated into a regime of privilege and tyranny.

Why? When and how did things begin to ‘go wrong’ in Bolshevik Russia? For answering that question there were two main schools of thought. One saw the fatal turning point as coming as late as 1929, when Stalin, having crushed both Left and Right Oppositions, became the country’s master. The other placed the moment in 1924, when Lenin died; or shortly before when he fell ill. For them he was the soul, the guarantor, of the revolution.

Simon Pirani takes a view different from both of these doctrines. He traces the process of change for the worse back to the early nineteen-twenties, when Lenin was still alive and active. He rightly claims that his book is “the first with a focus on working-class politics and the dynamics of workers’ relationship with the Party, in the aftermath of the civil war”11 He has done an immense amount of research in trade-union records, minutes of factory committee meetings, and Party and Secret Police archives for Moscow, both city and region, resulting in a wealth of examples of how, in detail on the ground, the great change proceeded.

It shows how, “between the civil war and the mid-1920s the Party was transformed … to an administrative machine for implementing decisions taken at the top.”12 This process was accepted by the working class on the basis of a ‘social contract’: better living standards for the masses in exchange for increased labour discipline and productivity and surrender of political power. To Pirani this was a disaster, a negation of the revolution’s purpose: he argues that “the movement towards socialism must involve participatory democratic forms that transcend the state.”13

The degeneration process is here presented, implicitly, as something that was not inevitable, that could have been checked had the will existed among those who benefited from it. But is that the whole story? Stimulated by Pirani’s splendid book, I want to offer some thoughts on what has to be said to complement the account it gives.

The first point concerns the failure of the Bolsheviks, before they came to power, to appreciate what is involved in administration both in politics and in industry. Lenin’s treatment of the subject in his State and Revolution, shortly before the 1917 revolutions, is shockingly casual. (Even a short experience of responsibility for the economy taught him the hard truth of the matter, as he showed, soon after October, in his The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, with its emphasis on the necessity of one-man management in the factories). ‘Bureaucracy’ is a disease of administration. Its appearance does not mean that administration itself should (or can) be dispensed with. Such work is not within everyone’s competence. Such work is not within everyone’s competence. Pirani quotes a worker’s request not to be put in charge of an executive body because “I, like many comrades, came directly from the factory. We have no education.” The state apparatus was “becoming more complex,” so that “a definite level of knowledge is needed to work on it”.14

That the Communists who took on the task of running the state and the economy exploited their positions is clear and thoroughly documented in The Russian Revolution in Retreat. But a certain degree of inequality, of privilege for those who bore those responsibilities was, surely, inevitable. During the civil war that followed the Revolution, Trotsky wrote an article headlined ‘More Equality!’, in which he criticised excessive differences in conditions between officers and men in the Red Army. But, in that same article, he justified a limited measure of privilege for the officers if they were to be able to do their jobs properly.

For some workers, the slightest sign of inequality evoked indignation – inequality, that is, within the working class. Pirani notes that these egalitarians “did not take the ‘equalisation’ [of rations] demand to mean that the advantages they enjoyed over other sections of the population should be scrapped.”15

My second observation follows from that. Along with the Bolsheviks’ underestimation of the burdens of government and management went an idealisation of their constituency, the proletariat. The fact was that the revolution the Bolsheviks wanted and the revolution that many workers wanted were not the same. And this became more apparent as time went by.

Some of the Bolsheviks, including Lenin, when they noticed that workers who became officials and managers soon turned into ‘bureaucrats’ in the worst sense of the word, tried to convince themselves that these men were not the real proletarians but, somehow, ‘petty-bourgeois’. It is to Pirani’s credit that he does not endorse that theory. “Such developments cast serious doubt on the Party’s ideologically-driven assumption that the opposition’s anti-working-class characteristics were a function of the petty-bourgeois social origins of some of its members.”16 He notes that some of the best elements in the working class, the least philistine, were content to leave the Party’s work to those who liked that activity. As one worker whose prime concern was to improve his qualifications and his general education said: “Now, I can read a lot, but if I had to go to all those meetings I’ll have less time.”17

Ought we not to see what happened in those years in Soviet Russia as a social process that began through, and was driven by, the realities of the situation, but was taken charge of by those who found it had results to their advantage? Must we not ask whether something like ‘Stalinism’ was ultimately inevitable, in a country like Russia at any rate? What difference would a revolution in Germany, say, have had on developments in Russia? We know that the best of the Bolsheviks set their hopes on that.

What I think Pearce wanted to develop further (though of course in his own way which I cannot reproduce) was not his judgement of Pirani’s book, but what he only implied about re-evaluating the historical significance of the Bolsheviks’ disappointed hopes for world revolution in the aftermath of World War I.

Is the treachery of bad leaders of the workers’ movement (in that case the German Social Democrats) any longer an adequate explanation for the tragic disappointments of the 20th century? Or do we have to re-examine the proposition of the Russian Revolutionaries that the 20th century was “rotten-ripe for socialist revolution” if only the “crisis of the leadership of the working class” could be overcome? That was the essential proposition behind the decision of many serious people of Pearce’s generation to devote their lives to the cause of communism; and, in the 1960s and 1970s, others (including the author of The Revolution in Retreat) followed suit, joining Trotskyist ‘parties’ that claimed they had absorbed the lessons of Stalinist as well as Social-Democrat betrayals.

In the light of the capital system’s hugely greater crisis and threat to human survival in the 21st century, this is the question – was it right to define the 20th century as one requiring only ‘the building of the revolutionary party’ to bring about world socialist revolution as ‘revolutionary situations’ matured? – raised in Slaughter’s Not Without a Storm, in a way that resonated with Pearce. Do we not now need new thinking? Thinking that absorbs our history certainly. But thinking which recognises that it is only now (when capitalist globalisation has embraced the former Stalinist states and much of what was once optimistically called the ‘developing world’) that, in the murk of universal financial corruption and governmental desperation, we can see, through a glass darkly perhaps, that the conditions for – and the urgent necessity of – socialist planning on a human-need basis and a world scale have emerged. If so, we need a radically new discussion about how this has come about and what to do about it.

Pearce’s great contribution to rescuing the possibility of such a rational historically-informed debate from the obscurantism of the Stalinist age is over. But the legacy of his historical honesty and rigour remains – an example for the type of discussion that is now urgently needed.

Notes

1.   See Terry Brotherstone, ‘Brian Pearce: a personal and political tribute’, Revolutionary Russia, 27 (2009); and my obituary in The Guardian, 11 December 2008
2.   After losing his Soviet embassy job in 1958, Pearce lived largely as a translator of scholarly work from Russian and French: for the latter he three times won the prestigious Scott-Moncrieff Prize.
3.   He did not go because his mother was seriously ill at the time.
4.   Pearce had visited Germany as a 16-year-old and identified the social effects of economic depression with what he saw there, not experiencing similar conditions in Britain until he went north during the war. As an 18-year-old he spent some months in France and was impressed there, as he had been in Germany, with the strength of the Communist party.
5.   This included subsequently well-known historians such as Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm and Victor Kiernan. E. P. Thompson and Dorothy Thompson also sometimes attended meetings.
6.   This work took Pearce to the USSR where he had several memorable experiences of the contradiction between Soviet practice and communist principles.
7.   Many of those Pearce knew from the CP Historians’ Group made successful academic careers, without, for the most part, contributing much to the historical analysis of the communist experience or informing the next generation of radical students and workers with the tools to grapple with the lessons of their own history in the camp of Stalinism. The most contradictory story is that of Eric Hobsbawm, Companion of Honour, a prolific and much admired historian, who actually remained a CPGB member until the end and has never seen the need to account for his support (‘albeit with a heavy heart’) for the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.
8.   On Pearce, see my ‘Tom Kemp and others’ in my co-edited (with Geoff Pilling) History, Economic History and the Future of Marxism: essays in memory of Tom Kemp (London: Porcupine Books, 1996); my essays in Keith Flett (ed.), Nineteen Fifty-six and After (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007), and in the Glasgow-based journal of socialist theory, Critique, vol. 35(2) (2007). See too John McIlroy, ‘A Communist Historian in 1956: Brian Pearce and the crisis of British Stalinism’, and ‘The Brian Pearce Dossier’, in Revolutionary History, vol. 9, no. 3 (Remembering 1956).
9.   His essays have been more than once reprinted as, with Mike Woodhouse, Essays in the History of British Communism. The translations included many speeches and pamphlets from the period of the Russian Revolution and the five volumes of Trotsky’s How the Revolution Armed.
10. The book, published in 2007, is available from Index Books, London (http://www.index-books.com); the chapter and some additional notes by Slaughter are accessible at http://culture-revolution.info – a new website open to radical contributions on cultural, historical and political matters; and with a link to the more developed French Marxist site, Culture et Revolution (http://culture.revolution.free.fr), which has major contributions on cultural questions.
11. Pirani, p. 15
12. Pirani, p. 12
13. Pirani, p. 10
14. Pirani, p. 131
15. Pirani, p. 31
16. Pirani, p. 179
17. Pirani, p. 226

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Vagabonds, criminals, paupers & gangrels?

“They hang the man,
and flog the woman,
That steals the goose
from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common
from the goose.”
Anonymous, 17th century

James Purnell’s 2008 Welfare Reform White Paper1 is the latest in a series of punitive welfare reform policies which go back at least as far as the infamous Youth Opportunities Programme of the late 1970s. Each ‘reform’, a word now inextricably linked to privatisation, has tended both to immiserate the claimant, and, in the language of Purnell, “deepen” and “widen” the obligation to work. The key area of restructuring the resulting Welfare Reform Bill 2008-09 intends is the abolition of Income Support and the movement of all claimants to either Jobseekers’ Allowance or Employment or Support Allowance. For the first time all benefits will be made conditional, marking the removal of the universal right to benefit based on need alone. Indeed, the Social Security Advisory Committee have called these reforms: “a major departure from the principles … that have underpinned UK social protection for almost 60 years”2.

Purnell’s White Paper represents an historical low in post-war welfare provision. Other significant changes include: requiring work-related activity in return for receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (formerly Invalidity and Disability allowance); work-focused interviews for the over-60s; job search compulsion for partners of benefit claimants; a regime of economic sanctions for non-attendance at Jobcentres (particularly hitting vulnerable claimants who are mentally or physically unable to attend); a requirement for births to be registered jointly by both parents (potentially criminalising any woman who refuses to name the father of the child3, whether out of fear of violence or personal independence). These demeaning, exploitative measures, with their punitive conditionality represent an extreme assault on the poorest and most vulnerable in society. As part of ‘workfare’ schemes – the requirement to undertake work in order to receive benefits – claimants could be working for as little as £1.50 an hour. With an election looming and ministers chasing headlines, moral panic and macho posturing against an ‘undeserving’ poor is again daily sport. The mood is palpable; evidenced by the likes of Channel 4’s ‘poverty porn’ series Benefit Busters, which aggrandises private job agency A4E’s pilot government scheme to get stigmatised single mothers on benefits into ‘work’.

In a low-wage system predicated on structural unemployment and working poverty4, welfare reform is the stick that beats the subject into the fickle embrace of wage-labour: low paid work and dead-end jobs that are likely to increase workers’ debt. As Demetra Kotouza recently argued, the political re-emergence of ‘workfare’ reveals the persistence of a perennial problem faced by capital and the State, “that of the production, management and moulding of property-less populations”.5 From the state’s point of view, he argues, the task is to “eliminate any conception of survival not based on selling one’s labour power”. Moreover, there are profits to be made by the private and voluntary sectors constituting the ‘poverty industry’ – an annual multi-billion pound market. The Voluntary Sector is where a moralised civic engagement is routinely ‘perverted’ into cheap labour, while the Social Enterprise Sector helps people get the ‘work habit’ and reinforces the commercialisation of social relations at a ‘community’ level. Indeed, the Confederation of British Industry described the Voluntary Sector as, “the weapon of choice for those involved in the ongoing battle over public service reform,”6 providing cover for the privatisation process while remaining relatively weak and vulnerable to the larger prime contractors. The government’s commissioning strategy is for fewer and larger welfare contracts. By March 2008, 33 out of 34 new contracts had been outsourced to private sector firms despite leaked reports showing the public sector outperforming the private sector 2-to-1.

Meanwhile, the education sector has to operate in an increasingly marketised and competitive environment and is inexorably drawn in the direction of a ‘skills for work’ regime. Welfare reform sees a re-routing of money into both colleges and private agencies running training courses supposedly designed to meet labour market needs. However, a recent study of young people, training and work in Glasgow suggests that for those leaving school and not going on to university “the norm is becoming a low wage and casualised work environment or an unregulated and degraded training system.”7 One interviewee, from one of the larger training establishments, reported over 2,000 applications for just 75 Modern Apprenticeship places in 2007. The study also discovered “examples of young people being paid as little as £60 per week in some instances, and in others, abuse of the Modern Apprenticeship system where young people leave placements with no qualifications.”8

Welfare and wages are inextricably linked: by providing a minimum source of income (though barely livable at current rates, at less than half the poverty threshold) the dole once acted as a floor to the depression of wages. In 1999, age-dependant minimum wages were introduced; their inadequate levels undercut wage rises generally at the same time as they produced a ceiling to social assistance. It should be noted that, quite arbitrarily, claimants of Jobs Seekers Allowance under 25 years of age are only entitled to £50.95 per week, compared to the full ‘adult’ amount of £64.30.

This problematic linkage between Welfare and wages is explicit with Working Tax Credit; a complex benefit payment for people in-work but with poverty incomes. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, Housing or Council Tax Benefit is deducted to reflect any tax credits. It is a system that eulogises the well-being of work, “it pays to be in work”, especially self-employment and self-exploitation. Notorious for overpayments followed by significant hardship and bullying as repayments are doggedly pursed, millions of people are deterred from claiming Working Tax Credit or its companion Child Tax Credit despite being entitled to it.9 Up to £10.5bn benefits went unclaimed in 2007/08, up from £8bn unclaimed by those entitled to it in 2004/05.

With large, financially incentivised Employment Agencies working either end of the privatisation of Welfare delivery and job flexibility/precarity, government attacks on Welfare should be seen as part of a broader labour restructuring programme designed to resign workers to more work, worse conditions, and less money.10 But Welfare restructuring is not about saving public money. Despite the rhetoric, the enormous costs of privatising and outsourcing services ensures as much. Take the objectives of Working Links (a public-private partnership that includes an employment agency, aimed at getting the long-term unemployed into work), they include to “grow the value of the business” and “see sustained growth in profits”, as well as “diversifying the business by bidding for new DWP contracts”. To do so, they claim to be “in a great position to be able to deliver and influence plans for welfare reform”.11

Welfare restructuring around workfare is fundamentally about increasing market share of the poverty industry. However, the government’s own commissioned research has found “there is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers.”12 It is also about exploiting the reserve army of workers by coercing the unemployed, “where punishment is the strategic withdrawal of the means of subsistence”, into any and all forms of precarious work, with ‘work for your benefits’ pilot schemes offering up cheap, indentured labour. All of this puts increasing pressure on existing workers through intensified labour-market competition which drives down wages and reduces the leverage to press for improved conditions. Yet despite this obvious correlation between welfare and work there have been few effective movements to defend the unemployed and low-wage workers collectively. The National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) of the ’20s and ’30s was one obvious, well-organised exception to this.13 The Unemployed Workers Centres and Benefit Claimants groups which contested ruinous Thatcherite policy are another, but overall the picture has been underwhelming.

Life on the dole has occasionally provided some form of political independence for collective radical activities – such as the anti-roads movement, the Criminal Justice Bill and anti-Poll Tax campaigns. But reductions in benefits, the rising cost of living, and the individualism and atomization that occurs through the welfare system, means that most people are left to deal with their claims alone and remain outside of any broad social movement traditionally precipitated by the massing together of different individuals in shared experience. Claimants are tacitly encouraged to find individual ‘lifestyle’ solutions to alienation and poverty instead of making collective demands to defend the Welfare State and the limited space for personal development that it has sometimes afforded. This narrow breathing space has been especially significant for artists, musicians and a range of cultural producers and it is perfectly respectable for some to admit publicly how they have depended on Welfare in the absence of any other support.

A false division between those in work and those ‘out of work’ has dominated and this is what is now being exploited. However, with the unemployed increasingly being herded into a privatised workfare industry, and with the onset of large-scale unemployment under recessionary conditions, there lies the possibility of a convergence of interests and perspectives between the unemployed, people in precarious work and all those who contribute to society outside of the wage-relation. Most obviously, we may ask, how do we value parenting in an advanced capitalist society? This unjust Welfare system that shows all the contradictions of capitalist globalisation may be likely to collapse in new and unforeseeable ways as the State struggles to maintain its legitimacy in the face of wage arrests, home dispossessions, unemployment and insecurity for ever increasing sectors of the population.

In opposition to these continued attacks on the poor, there have been some challenging community responses to the proposals. In a collaborative riposte underpinned by research from Chik Collins and funded by Oxfam, the Clydebank Independent Resource Centre, state that: “No one apart from a desperate and despairing coalition of poverty groups and trade unions seem to much care that this curiously scanty bill gives the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions sweeping and vaguely defined powers to remove benefits from anyone who does not or cannot comply with a raft of ‘work preparation’ activities.14Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty15 and Edinburgh Claimants  are among those groups that are only too well aware of the implications of this legislation. They were set up by people who are unemployed, too sick to work, or on low incomes in order to provide “advice and solidarity” on benefits hassles and debt woes. Variant interviewed these groups in Spring 2009 because building and strengthening coalitions between people in low paid work and people on benefits is surely more urgent than ever.

What is the history of Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty (ECAP) and the Edinburgh Claimants’ Group? Where did they come from?

Mike: There were several active Claimants’ Unions in Edinburgh and the Lothians in the early 1980s linked to the Unemployed Workers’ Centres. Edinburgh Claimants’, formed around 1992, was operating out of The Edinburgh Unemployed Workers’ Centre at Broughton Street, which had been occupied by the users after the Council cut off funding. There was also a lot going on throughout the ’90s – around ’96-’97 there was opposition to the new Job Seeker’s Allowance, which brought in more stringent conditions for unemployment benefit. There were occupations of Job Centres and of the private companies that were running the compulsory schemes. It was also the period when we were doing the ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out’ actions against bullying dole officials. That was a high point of collective activity – there were actions with about 30-odd people invading Job Centres, and so on. We got the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh premises here, at West Montgomery Place off Leith Walk, in early ’97, and we’ve been running the weekly claimants’ sessions just about every Tuesday since...

Sacha: ...even if, occasionally, single-handedly... [laughter]

M: Often in challenging conditions; before the refurbishment, hunched over a Calor Gas stove in freezing temperatures ...as the ceiling collapsed around us. So there’s been that continuity. By 2003-04 it was getting to the stage that, although the advice was keeping going, there wasn’t really any activism. We were still doing a bit of fly-posting but we hadn’t been going out to the Job Centres to leaflet and we certainly weren’t able to do Actions. There was really only just three or four of us then.

S: In the end it seemed to be an unofficial Advice Centre, providing advocacy, even though that does serve a useful purpose, especially with people who have maybe bent the rules. We accept that the laws and the system provided for welfare is actually grossly inadequate, whereas places like Citizens’ Advice follow a more legal line. While that side of things is quite important, all of us feel that there has to be a broadening of scope into political action.

M: That was how we started thinking about how we could re-launch things and, around 2005, we started talking about launching a solidarity network and phone tree.

S: It was sort of based on techniques used during the resistance to Poll Tax.

M: The Poll Tax did influence us, because of the successful resistance to debt enforcement. It showed that active resistance to Sheriff Officers was really possible.

Is it correct that the Claimants’ Groups in the earlier period were actually funded by the City Council – the State?

M: Through the ’80s into the ’90s, there was a lot of Unemployed Workers’ Centres that were State funded; by Local Government, by Labour Councils – I suppose as a kind of Social Democratic response to mass unemployment and to Thatcherism. Although the funding meant that there was a certain amount of bureaucratic control, at the same time it meant there were groups which emerged that were quite independent, like the Claimants’ Unions that were active in Edinburgh, East Lothian, and West Lothian. Then the Unemployed Workers’ Centre (UWC) in Edinburgh had its funding cut by the Council, basically because of our involvement in the Poll Tax non-payment movement. That sparked off a big struggle because, in response to the cutting of the funding, the paid worker and the Labour Councillors who were on the UWC Trustees’ Committee actually locked all the unemployed people out! [laughter] They said that it was a financial crisis and they needed to work out how they could continue. They were going to do that by shutting us out and deciding amongst themselves what they were going to do. [laughter] So we broke in and took it over again; the paid worker called the police to evict us but we refused to go, so the police retired in confusion [laughter]. Then, the paid worker and these Labour Councillors broke into the Centre at night and stole all the equipment, all the computers and stuff, so we broke back in again and re-opened it and ran Broughton Street for two years unfunded. The Claimants’ Group (CG) was a big part of that. All around Britain there were State funded UWCs, but the funding got gradually pulled.

To get a sense of that trajectory of the Labour Party – because it’s quite a shift from then to the current regime: Why do you think they were funding UWCs? Was it in opposition to the Tory Party at that time?

S: I suppose the Labour Party has now transformed itself into a neo-liberal party. It was pushing out the left of the Party even In the 80’s, but I suppose at the time the UWCs were useful for them to have as attempts to counter Tory policy. The Claimants’ Group, Broughton Street, was then becoming kind of autonomous and officialdom didn’t really like the idea of that. Labour of course controlled a lot of the councils at the time, and though they said they were against the poll tax – as Councils they went on to try and collect it, and set the sheriff officers on people.
Then there was the SNP, although they were kind of against the Poll Tax, they believed that you should actually pay it in the end – they had this stupid idea that you should save your money aside and then, when the law was changed, pay what you were due. Completely forgetting the fact that the reason a lot of people weren’t paying was because they couldn’t afford to pay it, and, still to this day, can’t afford to pay it. Council Tax still takes up quite a lot of our time; water rates, and stuff like that build up... That’s what we’ve been doing recently; it’s been quite a big thing. Councillor Gordon McKenzie, head of finance at Edinburgh Council, was involved in pushing the Sheriff Officers to actually doorstep people to demand council tax arrears, and so we attended one of McKenzie’s surgeries and gave him a large mock ‘Final Notice’ letter.

M: A certificate of Moral Bankruptcy [laughter] to mirror their policy of threatening people with bankruptcy and homelessness for Council Tax arrears.

S: There were people, including people who work here, who, in having a mortgage are particularly vulnerable as they can be threatened with sequestration, therefore possibly losing their homes. Or being able to stay in their homes, but having to pay their mortgage to the Council, but then it still belonging to the Council – all really bad!

What are the issues that people have to deal with when they’re claiming? Where are they finding themselves short?

S: Loads of problems arise from the way the system has become so automated and managed. To me, the Labour Party have just become this technocratic managerial Party and it’s reflected in everything. You go to the Job Centre and you can no longer just walk in, you have to phone some call centre, so people with grievances have very little access to actually directly speak to somebody and that in itself causes loads of problems. Often the advisors themselves, the ones you get limited access to, are on the phone; it’s just that culture of reading off the screen with set answers, so people get misinformation all the time. An example of the kind of thing I’ve had to work with is you’re allowed to work or study if it’s under 16 hours. Most people don’t understand how that works and there’s been a lot of people falling foul of receiving misinformation ... there was a guy in, he was told by his advisor at the dole that what he was doing was ok and then suddenly he was told that he owed them £200 and he was to attend an interview about potential fraud investigations. So there’s this kind of criminalisation of the unemployed; an idea that everyone’s at it coupled with negligence. There are a lot of single mothers who take on jobs and end up getting in trouble. There was a case I dealt with a couple of years ago – the dole couldn’t even work out the exact sums she owed. It seemed to go from £1,000 to £7,000, and they were threatening her with court prosecution. It’s a continuation of that ’80s Tory idea: ‘single mothers and all these people – they’re all somehow criminals’. But when you actually look at it, often they’re not advised very well and then they’re threatened when the administrative system gets it wrong.

Our experience has been that quite often the letters the authorities send out are very misleading and sometimes quite alarming. For instance, they might tell you that your claim has been suspended in a letter and then when you challenge it, it turns out that it was only an administrative problem. Do you deal with that type of problem very often?

S: With the Council Tax in particular, it seems that the Council themselves have no idea, really, of what people owe them; it can jump from being £1,000 and the next minute £5,000. So we get a lot of people with that... a lot of people feeling anxious because the demands letters are quite threatening. But in Scotland, for the Sheriff Officers to come into your home, they’ve now got to have a special court case, and then got to give you an exact date – there are certain procedures they must follow. Poindings [forced sale of your belongings] are restricted but they could still happen. People feel really intimidated by their language, by tactics like door-stepping, with their demands letters, but we just try to get across the idea that often, with a bit of solidarity, officers don’t have as much power as they make out.

Do you think they mobilise threat and menace as a deliberate way of scaring people?

S: Oh yes, definitely!

M: The Council in Edinburgh actually instigated a new policy of threatening people with bankruptcy in order to try to get them to pay their Council Tax arrears within a year. They actually adopted a deliberate policy of targeting several thousand people and saying to them, ‘OK, you’ve got an existing agreement: pay £25, £35 a month, but that’s no longer good enough. Now you’re going to have to pay enough each month so that you pay off your grand, or six grand, debt in a year’. Which was obviously impossible for those people.

The Council were also breaking an agreement?

M: That’s right: the Council and the Sheriff Officers... the situation in Scotland seems to be worse than in England for old debts because Poll Tax debts got written off in England, but not in Scotland!

So, as well as the Poll Tax coming in a year earlier in Scotland, the debt still has to be paid here whereas it doesn’t have to be paid in England...

M: There’s two people in particular that we were helping that were being victimised by this demand to pay off their Council Tax arrears. That was when we employed the tactic of going en masse to Councillors’ surgeries to support one of the families. As well as going to Councillor Gordon McKenzie’s surgery, we went to Cllr. Cardownie’s surgery, the leader of the SNP group in Edinburgh. We went with the family who were being threatened with bankruptcy, and Cllr. Cardownie, who previously had refused to meet the family, said, ‘Oh, it’s being dealt with – there’s nothing I can do’. But when 16 or so of us turned up at his surgery he was really taken aback. He was stunned [laughter]. We all just went into the surgery and he had to listen to us for about an hour. In the end, he sort of agreed under the pressure that he would back the family’s case and that he thought the sum they were paying already was totally reasonable and that it was wrong to threaten them with bankruptcy and all the rest. So that was quite a good result. But then, of course, he tried to back-track on it, became very evasive, and didn’t follow up on it. So it still needed a lot of pressure from us. It still definitely helped though, because, in the end, we accompanied the family to a meeting with top Council officials. We also started contacting the Council leader, Jenny Dawe, and put pressure on her, and in the end the Council backed down and agreed, more or less, to the original terms of the repayment being continued.

Thousands of people were being threatened with this?

M: Yes, thousands of people. We’ve had a couple of victories, but we don’t really know what’s happened with all those other cases – although the Council figures looked as though they’d been quite unsuccessful enforcing people to pay more and they hadn’t actually made people bankrupt, as far as we know. So maybe people are resisting in their own way, or maybe the Council are finding it difficult to push through.

S: I suppose if people can’t pay, they can’t pay. Really, that’s the thing. Even Cardownie himself admitted, in the case of the family who had two children: ‘What are you going to do? Are you going to feed your two children well, or are you going to pay your Council Tax? Or pay more Council Tax arrears than you’d already arranged?’ Anybody can work out what comes first. And with the rise of food and fuel prices, and the like, people on welfare or low incomes are really struggling to get by.

How important were the Council House sales on threatening people with bankruptcy? Is there more of an incentive for the Council, in that the property becomes available to them? You mention earlier about them renegotiating home ownership with somebody.

S: I think the mortgage thing in itself is to make people feel more vulnerable. I think if you live in a Council House you own your house more than folk who have a mortgage, because, theoretically, the bank owns your house if you have a mortgage, and, if things go wrong, people are potentially threatened with homelessness. It’s probably going to become a bigger issue linked to debt as repossessions rise. [not convinced about the clarity of the question, but the answer is good]

At a very localised level, how are things like the debt burden and the credit crunch affecting people – is that a very tangible thing in Edinburgh yet in the way that you deal with folk?

M: Certainly the Job Centres have become a lot busier. Somebody we know that signs on at Leith Job Centre said that the staff there had said that they were just overwhelmed. Before, staff were being cut back and now there’s so many new people signing on. A claimant at High Riggs said the Centre were now having to cancel Job Fairs that they used to run because they didn’t have enough staff [laughs] to organise them.

S: Then there’s the private job clubs where they’re almost warehousing the unemployed. ECAP did an action at one called Action for Employment.

M: Another tangible sign of the economic crisis in Edinburgh is that work has stopped on a lot of the private housing developments, which totally shows up how crazy capitalism is. You’ve got this housing crisis in Edinburgh with virtually no social housing available, with people homeless, can’t find anywhere to stay, and you’ve got all these empty houses and developments that have just stopped. For example, beside the new Telford College in North Edinburgh, there’s this huge big building that says, ‘Hotel/Student Accommodation Development Opportunity’. [laughs] It’s this big building, it’s built, but it’s been empty, I think, for at least 6 months because they can’t profitably fill it.
Up at the dole today, I was talking to this young guy, he was 19, and he told me that he was homeless, that he was estranged from his parents, and he’s in temporary Council accommodation, They’re saying that after a couple of months it’ll just be up to him: he’s got to find somewhere because he’s 19. They said he’s not a priority, so he’s now worrying he’s going to be out on the streets.

S: I’m working on a case right now with a girl who’s in a wheelchair. She’s got a degenerative illness and she’s been homeless for 9 months. They put her in temporary accommodation, but it’s not adapted – there’s not enough ground floor flats that can be adapted. Her human rights are being infringed: by law she’s still homeless. They farmed it out to a group called ‘The Access Point’ who seem to deal with homelessness in Edinburgh. They seem to have less actual bargaining power than the homelessness department in the Council. [ECAP postscript: The woman concerned – after our hassling the Council on her behalf, phoning them up, writing letters, threatening direct action and accompanying her to meetings with them – has now been housed in a home she is happy with, which is adapted for her disabilities.]

M: Some of the treatment that she was getting from the Council officials was really bad, just totally uncaring and totally unsympathetic. Obviously the basic problem is the shortage of Social Housing, but it was made worse by the attitude of the Officials, which is probably not just down to individuals but is structural.

S: It’s the institution. But, I do think as an independent organisation we have the ability to put more pressure on them through a variety of tactics; some of them within the system, and some of them involving direct action and that kind of thing.

M: The whole idea of the solidarity phone tree is if we get to an impasse with negotiating and conventional channels then we can call together a group of people just to turn up somewhere, wherever is the relevant point, the relevant office, and just be there in a big group to let them know that unless they come up with a decent solution then there’s going to be public outrage.

The London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP) has had an influence on ECAP. Can you tell us a little more about that link and about the strategies employed by both groups?

M: The idea for ECAP came partly out of our situation here, in Edinburgh, partly the inspiration from Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), and partly from LCAP. The situation here was that our activity was maintaining the advice, but we didn’t seem to be doing a lot else, so we realised that we needed to involve a lot more people and, also, I think we thought that it didn’t really make sense anymore to concentrate solely on claimants or unemployed but that it had to be broader; that people were being forced onto compulsory schemes, the New Deal, that people were being forced into temporary work – they were out of work then they were in work again. We wanted something that would pull together everyone that was in that kind of precarious, low paid, in-and-out-of-work situation, so we didn’t want to define ourselves as only supporting just claimants anymore. We wanted something broader, and eventually we came up with the idea of ECAP. Also, it tied in with these other groups. The OCAP in Canada has been on the go for over 10 years and they’re incredibly successful at battling on fronts of homelessness and welfare, and all sorts of issues. They employ a combination of knowing the law, knowing your legal rights, and battling on that front, but also using direct action whenever needed. I actually remember that when we had the ‘3-strikes-and-you’re-out’ in Edinburgh, as a result of it we had a message of support from OCAP. LCAP formed 2 or 3 years ago, and they were being pretty successful which was a push to us: ‘Well, they’ve done it so we have to get going’, because we’d been discussing launching something for a couple of years.

This talk of precarity is really a critical point. Your benefits work is for unemployed people, and ECAP is now addressing questions of working poverty. Is there a separation between those that are unemployed and the precarious working poor who could very quickly become unemployed? Is there a possibility for a convergence or recomposition of these groups?

S: I think there is the possibility for convergence, definitely. But there’s also problems in that when you are unemployed or very poor the day-to-day grind makes it very difficult often to commit. I mean, we do have single mothers who are involved here but for a lot of people their lives are difficult and they’re marginalized. They often stick to what they know in their communities.
Personally, I’m finding young people now seem much more interested in ecology. If you think about it, there’s a lot more advertisements that link to the ecological movement; there’s very few adverts that link to anything to do with class struggle [laughter]. There’s no [‘class’] detergent or anything like that... [laughter] so you are literally fighting something that’s been made invisible by the media. Why I’m involved with Claimants is that I still basically think that the axis of class contradiction is the basis of all struggles and solutions to what we’re faced with.

With the emphasis on welfare reform and ‘rights and responsibilities’, that shift back to individual responsibility again...

S: ...that Victorian idea of the undeserving poor. You know, the poor are poor because they just went out and had sex and babies and drank or they were all junkies – all that crap. With some of ECAP’s posters, like ‘Don’t grass on your own class’, I think we’re fighting a cultural hegemony. The lower working class are mostly the unemployed and, just as you get in other marginalized groups, there’s often a lot of self-hatred, a lot of low self-esteem, but there’s also this attitude of ‘It’s that lots fault!’, because that is what’s pushed massively by the media.

M: Whether it’s Polish workers [S: or junkies....] or single parents that ‘get pregnant to get a house and I can’t get a house’ – that sort of thing comes out at the job centre when we’re leafleting, but it’s a good reason for doing the leafleting because you can sometimes get into a discussion about these issues and maybe sometimes get a few questions going.

Do you think it’s possible to get a broader discussion going with workers to start considering unemployment issues, because that’s additionally been a problem?

S: Precarity is something we’ve been aware of and been trying to address. But it’s difficult – I personally don’t think it can just be the work of a small group. It has to build when conditions appear. What’s been interesting to me has been the Visteon occupation: when you listen to the Unions they’re coming out with stuff like ‘another world is possible’, which is sort of the statement of the anti-capitalist movement or the social forum.

M: That’s interesting – whether an actual movement of occupations of workplaces which are being shut down might emerge? As well as the one in London, the one in Belfast, [S: and the ones in France] and there was the Prisme occupation in Dundee. In the ’70s there was a bit of a movement of occupations...

S: Another possibility might be house occupations, as people are forced to move out of their homes as the bank repossesses them. I think there’s the possibility for organising around these areas. We’re only a small group, but we do try with advice posters and leaflets to broaden the idea of solidarity in your [own] community – you don’t have to be alone. We can give advice on things we’ve done in the past and things that have been successful.

M: I suppose at the time of the Poll Tax, groups like us actually did have a big effect because the conditions were ripe. There were a lot of people ready to take the step of not paying. It was quite significant what people like Community Resistance in Edinburgh did at the time in getting together, working out a strategy of non-payment and organising, and then starting up local groups. At the right time people like us can have a larger impact but most of the time we’re just battling on in the face of big difficulties.

I suppose that’s the point: the Poll Tax never went away and it’s obviously still here in the form of debt, and the Council Tax, of course. ... So, I wonder, what are the means by which things become acceptable and how they become unacceptable? I’m thinking about house ownership, and obviously in Edinburgh you had the housing stock transfer, effectively a privatization of public housing stock, successfully defeated...

S: More people are getting more effected by poverty again, and they’re starting to see what has been sold to them in the last 20 years... people who thought they were middle class, but who are now starting to see that their pensions and their mortgages and their share options are actually quite meaningless. I think the problem with some anti-capitalist struggles, is that they’ve been too limited in that they have almost fetishised (workerist, authentic) elements of the working class: ‘Do you come from a housing scheme’, ‘Do you eat pie and chips’ kind of thing. I would define anybody who basically sells their human labour to survive in an alienated manner as working class. Hopefully as these trinkets that people have been given in the last 20 years appear more shallow and hollow there might be some sort of realignment of people’s ideas, and organisations like this might be able to offer some kind of, not leadership, but help and solidarity in that situation.

How do you see the relationship between your defense of state institutions to some extent – in the form of the welfare state – and your political antithesis to that institution? Is there a dialectic between what used to be called minimum and maximum programmes of activity?

M: What we’re about is not really defending the welfare state or benefits, but encouraging people to support each other and to organise together and gain some collective power. So we’re fighting over things like benefits and debts and stuff, not because we think the benefits system’s great or anything, but because it’s a way of people fighting for their needs, and also, hopefully in the course of that, forming new ways and ideas of relating and developing ideas of changing things on a bigger scale – realising that we can run things together; that we don’t actually need bosses and government. That’s how we see it, and we try and incorporate that in the way we organise. We try and be as egalitarian as we can.

In a sense that would almost be a minimum programme, in a way, to defend a limited space of autonomy. Is it possible to make the link to a more libertarian movement, taking into account that the kind of solidarity you’ve described might be a basis for that?

S: As a group, we’ve all got similar ideas, but also slightly different angles. Personally, I’m quite anti-workerist. I think work is a major form of social control so I would much rather see people be unemployed but not marginalized. This, along situationist type lines, might possibly create a more radical subjectivity. I remember when I was at school, it was during a recession and welfare wasn’t quite as... you didn’t have to jump through quite as many loops as you do now. There was actually a culture of people on certain housing estates just hanging out and chatting and getting drunk. Stuff that a lot of people would probably think of as quite negative, I actually found quite empowering. I think ‘work’ is a way of atomising people, to keep them in their house, in a low paid job. Most people actually live under quite precarious working conditions, but they’ve been sold this illusion that somehow they’re actually aspirational middle-class, self-actualisers, or whatever.

We have been talking a lot about unemployment, and the situations that can arise from that, but can you say a little bit about the extent of working poverty? The Welfare White Paper has said that work is the best way out of poverty, but given the extent of working poverty, is that really the case?

S: From my own experience of growing up as a kid, my mum was a single mum, unemployed for a long amount of time, and she did go into work schemes. We were actually poorer during those ‘work’ periods, because, for example, you can’t shop around because work tires you out. It’s better that people are on decent unemployment benefits than they’re forced into work that doesn’t even satisfy their basic needs, and that is how I think unemployment links to precarity and low pay.

There is also the question of so-called unproductive labour, particularly women’s labour in the home. And you have in the Welfare White Paper the suggestion that single mothers, once the child reaches 7 years old (or younger!), be chased into work, which opens up the whole question of what is actually productive labour?

S: I’ve got quite strong feelings about this. I mean, so-called productive labour is actually quite unproductive.

M: It’s actually socially harmful.

Also bodily harmful; physically harmful.

S: To say that mothers aren’t working seems to me to be an extremely spurious argument when the most productive force in any society is probably mothers. I think we live in many prisons, the nuclear family being one of them, the job being another one of them. That’s what attracted me, personally, to this organisation rather than, say, to other things of a more workerist type of position. You could say, ‘Let’s have everyone have jobs’, but what’s the point if they’re shit?

Are there any other points you’d like to raise?

M: We recently decided to concentrate on having stalls and leafleting at High Riggs Job Centre in the city centre. The idea’s to be there regularly, have a presence there, get to know people, get to know what the claimants signing on there feel are the main issues facing them.
We’ve done a news-sheet, High Riggs Hi-Jinks, laid out in the style of a jobcentre leaflet, we’re giving it out there. The first issue has quite a bit on A4E, the company that makes loads of money processing the unemployed through useless compulsory courses, the New Deal and so on.
We hope claimants will get in touch with us about the problems they’re facing, and we can take up these grievances. The idea is that, in the longer term, we can start to exercise a claimants counter-power, so we can actually force a change in decisions and policy in the jobcentre, because we have the power to organise disruptive action.
The first feedback has actually been at A4E, their office is nearby and we sometimes go on to leaflet there after the jobcentre. A claimant sent there got in touch with us after A4E threatened to stop his benefits for, they said, photocopying High Riggs Hi-Jinks! The thing is he didn’t do it, but now of course he’s really mad at them for falsely accusing him. He asked us to accompany him to an interview there but the A4E managers said that wasn’t allowed and called the police to have me chucked out!
Obviously we won’t let them away with this, we have forced the authorities to recognise that we can accompany claimants to interviews at the job centre, medical benefits, housing benefit and so on, so they can’t refuse us at A4E. We are making an official complaint to the District Manager of the Job Centre, we’re going to insist on an interview for the claimant at A4E with one of us present, and we will also be stepping up the leafleting at A4E...

Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty was set up by people who are unemployed, too sick to work, or on low incomes. On Tuesdays 1-4pm ECAP and Edinburgh Claimants run a drop-in day at The Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh (ACE) when advice and solidarity is available for benefits hassles, debt woes and other problems.

Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty
c/o ACE, 17 W Montgomery Place
Edinburgh EH7 5HA
t. 0131 557 6242
e. ecap at lists.riseup.net
www.edinburghagainstpoverty.org.uk

ACE: www.autonomous.org.uk
London Coalition Against Poverty: www.lcap.org.uk
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: www.ocap.ca

Notes

1.   Raising expectations and increasing support: reforming welfare for the future (2008)
2.   Cited in, Collins, Chik, To Banker, From Bankies - Incapacity Benefit: Myth and Realities (2009), with the Clydebank Independent Resource Centre, Supported and funded by Oxfam, p.3.
3.   Joint Committee on Human Rights Legislative Scrutiny: Welfare Reform Bill; Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill; Health Bill Fourteenth Report of Session 2008-09.
4.   http://www.cpag.org.uk/info/Povertyarticles/Poverty122/inwork.htm#imp
5.   http://www.metamute.org/en/Lies-and-Mendicity
6.   Collins, Chik, To Banker, From Bankies - Incapacity Benefit: Myth and Realities (2009), with the Clydebank Independent Resource Centre, Supported and funded by Oxfam, p.11.
7.   Beyond Aspiration: Young People and decent work in the de-industrialised city (2009), Andrew Cumbers, Gesa Helms and Marilyn Keenan.
8.   Ibid.
9.   http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/money/tax/article4174151.ece
10. http://www.geocities.com/aufheben2/stc_intro.html
11. http://www.shareholderexecutive.gov.uk/performance/workinglinks.asp
12. Department for Work and Pensions, Research Report No 533 2008, A comparative review of workfare programmes in the United States, Canada and Australia, Richard Crisp and Del Roy Fletcher
13. For an account of the Hunger Marches in Scotland, see, McShane, Harry, Three Days That Shook Edinburgh: Story of the Historic Scottish Hunger March, pamphlet, AK Press, 1994.
http://www.variant.org.uk/15texts/TheMarch.html
14. Collins, Chik, To Banker, From Bankies - Incapacity Benefit: Myth and Realities (2009), with the Clydebank Independent Resource Centre, Supported and funded by Oxfam.
15. http://edinburghagainstpoverty.org.uk/

‘To Banker, From Bankies - Incapacity Benefit: Myth and Realities : Perspectives on welfare reform, from the Clydebank Independent Resource Centre’, Chik Collins, CIRC, funded by Oxfam GB, April 2009
Can be downloaded at: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/ukpoverty/downloads/To banker from bankies.pdf

‘Beyond Aspiration: Young People and Decent Work in the De-industrialised City, Discussion Paper, June 2009’, A. Cumbers, G. Helms, M. Keenan, 2009.
Can be downloaded at: http://web.ges.gla.ac.uk/~acumbers/beyond aspiration paper/Cumbers2009BeyondAspiration.pdf

 

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Between rhetoric & reality
Susan Fitzpatrick

The Russian literary critic and socio-linguist Mikhail Bakhtin defined ‘dialogism’ as “meaning created through dialogue between actors, grounding the meaning of words entirely in their situated social usage”1. Bakhtin emphasizes that one’s own perspective is always limited, and in order to understand one’s self, we are dependant on the knowledge our other can provide. To illustrate the concept, Bakhtin uses the scenario of two people looking at one another. From their particular (limited) perspective, each is unable to see certain things, for example, their own face, whilst the other person can see those things, and provide a description. One’s own knowledge is always partial, and yet the understanding one gleans from one’s other, is also always partial because one is only ever able to reflect on the meaning given by one’s other. Given the limited perspective of the self, we can only gain understanding at the “boundary” of our own and someone else’s consciousness. Dialogism, then, refutes the idea of a single consciousness; meaning can only be wrought in the act of communication with our other.

Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture presents the opportunity to enquire how we might understand the event’s dialogic character. From 2002 onwards, Liverpool Culture Company under the auspices of Liverpool City Council began developing a series of narratives about their aims for ‘creativity’, not just for the City’s year as European Capital of Culture 2008 but for the broader re-assignment of Liverpool as a ‘Creative City’, a concept pioneered in the late 1980s by the director of the think tank Comedia, Charles Landry: “The Creative City idea advocates the need for a culture of creativity to be embedded within how the urban stakeholders operate. It implies reassessing the regulations and incentives regime and moving towards a more ‘creative bureaucracy’.”2 Through these narratives, attempts were made to finalise the meaning of creativity for Liverpool’s residents, particularly in the manner in which creativity was situated as a deliverable entity to communities by such a group of “urban stakeholders”.

Existing critiques of Capitals of Culture have tended to interrogate the authoritative claims of the legacy of the event3, its legitimacy as a vehicle for urban re-structuring4, or the consequences of symbolic re-invention of ‘identity’ of bidding or host cities5. This article engages specifically with the community involvement dimension of Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture (ECoC 2008), with the residents of the city who participated in this dimension of the event, to problematise how understandings of creativity in everyday life are shaped by multiple and contradictory contingencies. It suggests that we cannot therefore understand ECoC 2008 as a totality. To this end, Bakhtin’s work on dialogism may present a useful theoretical framework in which to unpack the complex chains of meaning surrounding creativity, and may be a useful basis from which to explore how meanings of creativity emerge from communication between different ‘actors’ in the community involvement dimension of Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture – Liverpool Culture Company staff, residents, the ‘business community’, cultural workers, and artists working outside the ECoC 2008 funding initiative.

Multiple and sometimes contradictory interpretations of creativity are evident in the discourses surrounding ECoC 2008. By understanding this dialogic turbulence as a series of expressions in pursuit of significance, the power relations embedded within ECoC 2008 become more apparent. We are able to witness how, in the development of cultural policy in the city, certain understandings of creativity prevail, whilst others are marginalized or completely absent. But, “what the public sphere may be becoming should not be hampered by assuming that it will repeat the forms and processes that have made it what it is today”6, and rather than finalise meaning as merely a culmination of reducible occurrences, a dialogic reading that exposes “the conditions of emergence that give rise to alternative voices, not political subjects seeking accommodation within dominant political culture”7, might allow us to explore the processes of that struggle for significance.

The construction of creativity

Liverpool City Council’s endorsement of ECoC 2008 was based on making creativity into a tangible force for neoliberal change both in modes of governance in the city and in the way communities interact with these modes of governance. These objectives are apparent in a key text published by the City Council, called The Art of Inclusion8. This document was published to advocate for the presence of community arts projects as part of the regeneration agenda for the city. Creative Communities, established by the Liverpool Culture Company in 2005 as a sub group within its Executive Board, its self-imposed remit was “to build community enthusiasm, creativity and participation”9. Its projected budget from 2005 to 2009 was just over £11 million. A Senior Manager within Liverpool Culture Company (from my interview with him) describes the specific setting for which the document was intended: “The audiences for [The Art of Inclusion] were senior policy and decision makers in central and local Government as well as professionals across all local government portfolios”.

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu uses the term “strong discourse”10 in his account of how neoliberal forms of governance have been normalised by various actors in government, education, and the media. His term describes discourses whose truth claims are perpetuated because they circulate only amongst groups likely to be consensual to that discourse. The authors of The Art of Inclusion are clearly aligned with the selectively chosen “urban stakeholders”, with whom they share a belief in the redemptive potential of the creative city, these include “the Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership… Housing Market Renewal Initiative… Capital of Culture Business Club… Department for Culture Media and Sport”.11 Creativity is being mediated by these specific urban stakeholders, through the desire to establish “Sustainable communities… support employment opportunities” and reduce “social exclusion”.12 Both the authors of the document and its intended audience of policy makers and professionals form Landry’s notion of a “creative bureaucracy”, and sustain their legitimacy through texts like The Art of Inclusion which circulate within these limited consensual spaces. The meaning of this designated role of creativity is thus only negotiated within these spaces. The rationale behind the creative activity posited by Creative Communities lies entirely within the realm of what they perceive as successful outcomes. Apart from leaving no room for either neutral or negative responses from participants, it also tacitly places the participants of the Creative Communities Program as beneficiaries.

In The Art of Inclusion, creativity is made meaningful through a process of fixing and ordering. For example, ‘regeneration’ is referred to as a destination that will be reached: “With local people on-side with their communities at the outset, the journey has every chance of reaching a successful conclusion”.13 A further example of how the meaning of creativity is fixed comes through the language of empowerment which peppers the document. What emerges is a disciplinary ethos in which the participant is responsible for demanding the kind of creativity which the Creative Communities programme legitimises: “To create demand for culture amongst people who are not currently motivated”14; “to ensure the programme impacts positively on skills development and job creation”15; “positive ‘social capital’ is increasingly recognised as a major influence upon an individual’s life chances”.16

The idea that participation in community-based culture-led regeneration necessarily leads to employment opportunities is a guiding narrative for the Creative Communities initiative. Job creation provides the motivation for the regeneration industry to focus on particular geographical areas where unemployment has been identified17 despite there being scant evidence for creativity as an economic booster. Job creation in the creative industries has been problematised by writer and policy analyst Kate Oakley, who notes that: “Instead of being attempts to release the imagination and innovation of local communities… public money is spent developing amenities that appeal to outsiders – the pay off presumably being that the jobs and growth they are deemed to bring, will trickle down to local communities. Thirty or more years of research on this suggest that the evidence for beneficial trickle down effects is non-existent.”18

The Creative Communities initiative, looked at for its dialogical processes, exemplifies Michel Foucault’s account of the manner in which discipline operates in modern society. He suggests that for discipline to operate at optimal efficiency, the subject of the discipline is first fixed geographically, then, the quantitative scale of the group is altered in order to correlate with the available production apparatus., the guiding rationale being efficiency:

“…discipline fixes; it arrests or regulates movement; it clears up confusion; it dissipates compact groupings of individuals wandering about the country in unpredictable ways… through perpetual assessment and classification [it is] a power that insidiously objectifies those on whom it is applied.”19

We can understand The Art of Inclusion as an agenda of the uses of creativity, set by the City Council and its stakeholders. This leads to a tension on the issue of ownership and authorship of community activity. The document states: “Creative Communities gives people ownership of the activities, they are actively involved and enjoying what is often a totally new and unusual experience”20, and, “By starting with a positive peer culture, more interaction and higher aspiration, an almost organic mode of improvement can begin.”21

On the one hand, Creative Communities is proposing a culture of autonomous community activity in which local people have ownership of their own affairs; on the other hand, Liverpool Culture Company promote themselves as the “enterprise” which can “deliver” this, and firmly place themselves as the author of a process which leads to emancipatory ends for communities. By affirming themselves as authors of the initiative, Liverpool Culture Company are reducing association and ownership of their own affairs by communities, if they are to experience any degree of power. Thus the structure that The Art of Inclusion emerges from is not equipped to recognise the multifarious otherness that exists in the realm of creative activity within communities and cannot take account of the full spectrum of motivations behind individuals’ creative endeavours.

To suggest that the document does not recognise otherness is not to say that it does not engage in a process of othering. Having tied participation in Creative Communities to outcomes such as growth in confidence and preparing participants for the job market, the Culture Company can then establish non-participants of the Program as apathetic towards these outcomes. To illustrate this point, I refer to one of my interviews with a manager within the City Council (referring to the ’Corpy’ or Corporation, that is, Liverpool City Council):

City Council Manager: “I’m talking about residents, residents will say ‘Oh, the Corpy will do that for me, the Corpy does it, you know, why aren’t you doing that for me?’, you know ‘Why aren’t you making that decision for me?’, you know, quite frankly, you’re an individual, you’re capable of making your own decisions, and you’re capable of being independent, but quite frankly, there are communities in this City, who have a reputation for being particularly labour intensive in terms of the support they need, and Council Members, because this is the way it’s been, have a view that the council wade in and do things for them, if all else fails, the Corpy must come in and sort things out, we haven’t got the resources, the Council’s resources are finite, we can’t contentedly live that way, we need to raise people’s expectations of themselves, and their confidence levels, and with some capacity building, and some confidence building, gradually release the apron strings.”

When the terms creativity, regeneration, and community are brought together in such a document as The Art of Inclusion, we are looking at the “intimate link between economic and moral value”22, at a formalised process of the making of personhood, where creativity is an exchangeable value, and the self is based on the accrual of particular modes of creative capital.23 This specific understanding of the self is highly pervasive in forms of arts-based community regeneration. Participation is understood as something of a key to accessing cultural capital, which in turn is expected to lead to other forms of social integration, particularly increased employability and social mobility. The particularised version of empowerment, which The Art of Inclusion claims to bestow on participants of the Creative Communities initiative, is part of a self-making process the successful end of which is the enterprising self which Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Paul du Gay24 situates as “[the acquisition of] cultural capital in order to gain employment; hence making the responsibility for un/employment an individual responsibility rather than a capitalist demand for labour and exploitation.”25

Dialogism as critique?

‘Creativity’ as proposed by ECoC 2008 can be understood as an unequal struggle for contested meaning amongst different inhabitants of the city. Aside from an argument as to whether ECoC 2008 is beneficial, the City Council and its partners are obliged to produce ways of knowing the event primarily as ‘significant’. This is re-produced by local and national media, as well as in academic research,26 whilst other groups and individuals question the significance of the event on the basis that the event fails to acknowledge the existing, multifarious ways of being, both of creative workers and residents in the city.

Community Organisation Manager: “We’re still having to make that argument [for funding]. We are having to force their [Liverpool Culture Company’s] hand really, they’re saying to us ‘Why should we have to fund you, you’re just a music venue, and lots of other people do that.’ And we’ve had to put forward the argument…we’re an academy, a nurturing organisation that works with young people, gives them the opportunity to perform on stage… It grieves me really. I’m sitting here, the organisation’s got £5,000 left in the bank, that will not see us through the financial year. We’ve just had a benefit concert done for us by Elvis Costello, that’s paid off a lot of debts and that, and people like him recognise the value of the work we do, the developmental work we do, you know when a kid walks in and doesn’t know how to play on the stage, or what a monitor is, or where to publicise their events, it really grieves me that the culture company is not automatically saying ‘You are on our essential list for funds this year or an organisation that we fund’.”

Liverpool Based Visual Artist: “…the [city] centre’s kinda key because its not so much the centre, it is physically they’re doing the centre and hoping there will be a trickle down I think it’s called, but…there’s also this thing at the top of a pyramid called high culture and there’s going to be a trickle down that way…. What the City of Culture has done, is actually fucked up both ways, so it’s ignorant of high culture and it’s been unable to engage with people and actually make their lives better at a grassroots level, but it’s some how missed the boat in both directions, yeah, ultimately, that just needs to be done, I don’t know if it’s cultural though, at a basic level. People need to feel safe and they need to, they need the basics sorting out, there needs to be a reduction in crime and all that kind of thing. But there is a vast gulf between the sort of culture that comes in with the Turner Prize… this high thing that we’re looking up to, and that seems to have landed on Liverpool, and then there’s this massive disparity, there’s nothing going on in between.”

The above quotes convey that official discourse has attempted to petrify particular understandings and uses of creativity according to their own construction of a participating public. In so doing, they have failed to adequately account for the already existing motivations and desires of the existing publics in the city. In addition, given the rigid structure of a cultural programme which exists to advocate other areas of City Council policy, they fail in their own aims to enrich the populace with cultural capital through a process of self-making where the self is realised as an entrepreneurial entity.

Within the linguistic terms of Baktin’s analysis of the speech act, we can understand The Art of Inclusion as an example of “official discourse”. According to Bakhtin, at the extreme end of “official discourse” is the totalitarian tendency not to recognise otherness; such discourses “abhor difference and aim for a single, collective self… they assume no other selves beyond the one they posit as normative”27. A problem is that the processes that flow from these discourses are not the result of a conversation between the multifarious groups who have a stake in the outcomes of these processes. However, dialogism insists that meaning emerges from conversation, that the utterance can never be understood from the “I”, that it is always a function of the “we”, and that the utterance, rather than reflecting what is experienced outside of language, is itself “a deed, it is active and productive”28.

Bakhtin’s insistence on an analysis of the speech act in its situated social use as communication allows us to move beyond analyses “where discourses and texts are separated from their central role in the process of communication”29 as in the authorship debate amongst French post-structuralists, identified by Barthes in The Death of the Author30 and later taken up by Foucault. The debate intended to shift our understanding of the author as the sole originator of meaning in the text by rejecting the enlightenment ideal of the lone genius. This has in turn led to the criticism that Bakhtin, by stressing the social usage of language as it is found in the everyday, neglects to look at structural power relations, i.e. the meta-conditions which inform everyday speech acts such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. But by looking at language in its situated usage, the intonations of speech, the use of irony or parody or other devices, we can understand that there is a knowledge of superstructures there in everyday speech; that the manner in which people make sense of creativity in their everyday lives escapes the totality advocated of creativity in the realm of policy objectives.

Dialogism has recently been utilized as a tool to expose how communication took place between different actors in instances of situated regeneration initiatives. Gunson and Collins have written about the gap between the rhetoric and reality of a regeneration “partnership”. The rhetoric referred to the manner in which residents would be full partners in planning and delivering a regeneration strategy for their area. The process broke down when the local government office failed to engage in the process of the ideal speech situation; an emancipatory model of rational communicative practice, as put forward by Jürgen Habermas in his concept of an active public sphere, i.e. where the ongoing speech act is free to take place unconstrained by economic and administrative rationalization, and where public opinion formed through discursive relations can influence political action. Habermas held that whilst the ideal speech situation is not ever fully attainable, we should nevertheless aspire to it in the manner we communicate in the public realm. For Bakhtin, however, the on-going dialogue is the permanently unfolding attainment of productive communication.

Undertaking these communicative ethics in the moment of a situated contest should help people to understand their other’s perspective, and might make possible an inclusivity that enables “subordinate actors to seek a greater symmetry of voice”31. Such a prospect of an “unequivocal respect of otherness”32 may sound like an emancipatory endpoint that we should eventually hope to attain, however, for Bakhtin, this misses the point. The ongoing-ness of dialogue that Bakhtin suggests holds the emancipatory ideal, in that it continues to create meaning and out of that the further possibility of meaning: “Even agreement retains its dialogic character, that is, it never leads to a merging of voices and truths in a single impersonal truth”33.

But, as political theorist lain MacKenzie has written: “Rather than assume that the public realm is a space occupied by political groups that reflect identity-forming contexts, we can view the public realm as conditioned by events that create significance-groups. The idea of a ‘significance group’ expresses the mode of its constitution rather than hiding this under a banner of identity or class or some other model. In other words, we can give an account of the emergence of a variety of new political formations within the public realm, one that does not rely upon the traditional model of excavating or revealing already existing, if obscure, ‘natural or intrinsic’ aspects of human identity. [...] Shifting from identity-based to event-based assumptions about the public sphere constitutes a move away from the ‘ideal’ nature of the ideal of accommodation toward an emphasis upon the nature of ‘real’ accommodations within the public sphere; that is, towards a view of politics that is not distorted by presupposing that there are ideal modes of interaction in the public sphere. [...] It also implies that the concept of the public sphere is best grasped by analysing its dynamic features, its becoming, rather than by trying to hypostatise it as a simple representative of a political world that we think we know in advance of our apprehension of it.”34

Towards a dialogic understanding of Four Corners

Four Corners is a “flagship project” of the City Council’s Creative Communities Program. It also formed part of the Council’s Culture Program for ECoC 2008 when work from the project was exhibited at the Bluecoat Art Centre. As such, it represents the confluence of the discursive fields of community, creativity and regeneration, and ECoC 2008; fields both occupied and contested by a multifarious set of actors. But a dialogic understanding of creativity is not accounted for because the project is constrained by the centripetal impulses within the discursive field set up by the organisers of the project, namely the City Council and Arts Organisations in the city. We might refer to this as the official discourse of the project, which first of all brought the project into being. It provided the rationale for the project, it guided the practice of the project, and eventually finalised the meaning of the project to participants and audience. However, from the perspective of participants, the occurrence of the Four Corners project represents one intervention, amongst many others, in their ongoing experience. This points to a dialogic understanding of creative experience, where involvement in Four Corners is one part of a multiple, embodied process of socially situated expression “about the experience of particularity and contingency”35.

Four Corners represents a technocracy of civil servants and art workers who seek to create a setting in which the conspicuous consumption of creativity can occur, and the meaning of that setting can then be translated back into the structural necessities of wider policy. The catalogue that accompanies the Four Corners exhibition states: “Evidence directly from participants shows that the project has increased confidence, given people ‘fresh energy’, ‘a thirst for more’, and ‘has made people realise that they are doing something positive with their lives’. What a legacy”36.

As the above quote from the exhibition brochure is designed to illustrate, there is an assumption that being ‘creative’ is full of benefits.37 This rationale, privileging participation in a regime of creative activity through which a set of highly particularised motivations are reinforced, is about the individual accruing the correct kind of cultural habits to function in the Creative City construct which forms the basis for Liverpool City Council’s vision of post-2008 urban governance: “Cities in the future will be differentiated not by their physical environment but by the quality of experience they offer. Liverpool is… moving completely away from old style city governance to a new model where creativity is at the core…”38

Liverpool City Council’s Creative Communities strategy dictates that the creative act exists to mediate Council policy. The Four Corners project has run annually since 2006 and works around a theme. In 2007 the theme was: “What makes a neighbourhood”. The exhibition catalogue written by the project’s Creative Director describes Four Corners as “seeking to embed culture, in its widest sense, and the arts, into day-to-day activities of the city council’s regeneration portfolio”. The project therefore mediates council policy through its roster of events. A language of reflection through celebration pervades the exhibition catalogue for Four Corners 2008: “capturing memories, aspirations and supporting community cohesion”. Effectively, this shapes highly controversial housing market renewal (HMR) activity in Liverpool into a neutral visual art product.39

In 2002, Liverpool City Council stated that changes they intended to make to the city’s housing stock were intended to attract “middle income households, particularly in those areas which offer the best opportunities for mixed housing developments – the eastern fringe and the inner core”40. In ‘Housing Market Renewal and Social Class’, Chris Allen, of The Manchester Institute of Social & Spatial Transformations, re-affirms working class communities’ resistance to the gentrification agenda of Liverpool City Council’s housing policy. He states his case using interviews with residents in the Kensington area of the city, an area that has seen mass imposition of compulsory purchase orders on residential property, and whose residents brought Liverpool City Council’s HMR activity to a public inquiry where the seeming inevitability of the gentrification agenda was brought into question. Allen problematises the prevailing housing market doxa, wherein it is assumed everyone either has the aspiration to, or already has, an existing position in the housing ‘market’; that is, where one’s house is not simply somewhere to dwell, but represents a purchasable product that occupies a position within a space of positions:

“Working class people experience rather than contemplate houses, they seldom talk about ‘housing’ in conversation… the task then, is to ‘sell’ the programme of change to people. This is achieved by shaping the conditions of communicative transmission and reception so that the dominant view prevails within Kensington. Such is the nature of institutional arrogance that is produced by adherence to the dominant housing market doxa that, even when confronted with resistance, this is understood as a problem of communication rather than a problem borne of a conflict of interest.”41

There is a distinct shaping of the conditions of communicative transmission and reception occurring in the Four Corners project, which rotates around their theme of ‘What makes a neighbourhood’. Official discourse in the form of Creative Communities situates residents’ experience of HMR, albeit in an indirect way, as a finalised, and idealised entity to be ‘showcased’ and celebrated. HMR as a site of conflict, struggle and resistance cannot be accounted for. Below, a creative communities manager gives an account of how residents benefit from this way of understanding things:

Manager within Culture Company: “[N]ot intruding on neighbourhoods or community members in some way, but enabling them to tap into their creativity and address issues that are relating to them, about their community, or lack of community wherever they live. And the majority of the time, lots of houses are being knocked down, lots of upheaval… a lot of people stay in one place, live and die there, and it’s quite an upheaval really… and we’ve tried to use Creative Communities to a certain point, to celebrate that within what we’re doing and give people a voice through creativity… we are using different tools to address those issues for them, so that Joe Bloggs understands why their house is getting knocked down and can actually scream and shout about it through a poem or a dance or something that can be expressed and can be put on a platform to be showcased and shared with other people, so people know where they live, or used to live…”

This is the disciplinary dimension of this particular construction of creativity. Within a bounded space and time of a regeneration project, actual lived experience is mediated by the technocracy of ‘experts’ in forms of theatre and broadcast media, where there is apparently little room for a conversation about the rationale of that policy, rather it becomes a matter of “coping” with that policy:

Artist, Four Corners project: “…what I want to do is say how can we articulate this pain, how can we articulate this trauma, how can we do it in such a way that it goes from being particular, but eventually becomes universal so that anybody else experiencing the work in some way will understand something fundamental about what it is, what home is about, what it is to lose your home, to have your home razed to the ground, and whether we can move on and survive from that. And I think as the three years have gone on, I think there is an emergent aesthetic which is definitely art, but is also dealing with the regeneration of the city…”

The manner in which a resident of the city experiences an aspect of council policy is thus morphed into a ‘neutralized’ but not neutral cultural product. The experience shifts from ongoing lived experience to a finished piece of artwork, where meaning can be finalized and then referred to via fine art discourses.

Rather than opening up the spaces of communication that enable a democratic dialogue between council and resident about the consequences of that policy, the person who has experienced or is about to experience that particular council policy is encouraged to become a participant via the schema of cultural regeneration; their experience is shaped by this schema and an account of their experience is then shared with the transient group of audience members, also participants of the cultural regeneration schema. A key critical point here is the way in which the official discourse operates to assert this process into a supposedly empowering one for the participant, via the inter-personal and technical skills they are believed to have picked up along the way. As a discourse analysis of The Art of Inclusion shows, one of the abiding narratives that accompanies creative intervention projects in communities is that voice is ‘given’ to the unheard, and participants feel empowered as a result. Evidently, there is a tension around the authorship of creative projects in communities. Once more, the structural nature of the Creative Communities strategy means that a multiple authoring of projects exists, involving civil servants, arts workers and residents. However, it is the City Council, via the Culture Company, that persistently makes the claim that it has provided that space in which dialogue can occur: “At the core of Creative Communities is a simple aim – to harness the creativity of Liverpool’s people by making creativity an integral component of everyday life”42.

There is a certain ontological certainty expressed by this quote, namely that creativity is not an already-existing part of people’s lives. This assertion reflects the manner in which creativity is captured by the technocratic environment of cultural regeneration initiatives. It has to be bounded and knowable through a conspicuous display of resident involvement, like a gallery exhibition, and, as has been indicated, the meaning of the creative or social activities of a group are then mediated through a set of official discourses. This is problematic because participants of the Four Corners project are already part of existing self-organising groups, who have found their own means of creative expression which Four Corners then mediated according to its agenda of cultural regeneration. I interviewed a number of people who participated in Four Corners; some were members of an over-60s group who meet in a community centre in a suburb of Liverpool City Centre, some were members of a group of writers living with multiple sclerosis. Both groups emerged out of a desire to provide their community with an opportunity for social interaction, mutual support, and particularly in the case of the MS writers, an outlet for ongoing creative expression. One of the MS writers puts the importance of the group into context:

MS Writers’ Group member 1: “But there is a parallel really about what happens in the group in terms of regeneration, and what we felt was happening within the city, we were sort of a microcosm of what was happening because when I joined the group, what I felt was the positivity within the group, the idea was that yes we had this disability, we are all walking wounded, but we were regenerating ourselves, we found some outlet that we could draw on to express ourselves, we were still up and functioning and we could contribute. So in that sense it was an engine of regeneration in all of us and I think that the fact that people come and turn up every week, says something about that sense of belonging, the energy that comes from the group to keep us going, it does provide that focus for us, in fact that fuel.”

In the case of the over-60s group, one member describes the importance of their weekly meetings:

Over 60’s group member 1: “Concerning this place, what do I do as an old woman? Well I just try to keep alive and just keep breathing in and out! …As an old age pensioner, or a senior citizen, we need this place to function for other people, ‘cos there is no other thing in the area, non-denominational. The church run things, but the church is funded. We don’t get funded, our little group. Only now and again people upstairs can get grants for us, and that’s for speakers, or to do things, but our little group itself, is just self-funding, but we need someone to sort of, the idea of it is to drop in, and I think it’s vital for this area, because there is a lot of old people here, and the ones that do come, it’s two hours out, and it gets them out of the house. And its somewhere for them to go, now it started with five of us, suggesting this… and we sort of feel responsible now because we started this baby and it’s growing isn’t it.”

Both groups exemplify a process where acts and products become meaningful through the ongoing process of dialogue and interaction. This dialogic way of being presents a very different ontology from the official discourse. This may present a problem in the development of policy objectives in the making of Liverpool as a creative city in the sense that the already existing ways of being of fully- or semi-autonomous groups in the city (Bakhtin’s ‘counterpublics’) are not being recognised in their own pursuit of expression. Creativity in the writers’ group entails an ongoing back-and-forth process, which results in the development of pieces of work, and also the development of writing skill. The City Council sees its own role primarily in ‘delivery’ of creative interventions, ultimately towards an emancipatory end of “giving voice” within the model of identity-orientated movements. In the case of the Four Corners project, this ontological tension partially resulted in what members of the group felt was a misrepresentation of their work and their values as a group:

MS Writers’ Group member 1: “…it was a big buzz for us to have our work up there as a group, but, I just looked at the group as the film ended, across the line, just sat there, and the faces were thinking where were we in that film, all the work we put in, where were we? We really committed to doing it, put the work in and just felt it wasn’t represented properly… that was the impression we got, that we were representing something of what the Culture Company had commissioned, and I suppose we were, but we felt we weren’t shown to be representing what was the best of us and what we put in.”

The way in which the over-60s group has evolved means that it is primarily an opportunity for members of the community to meet and socialise. Their involvement in Four Corners meant that their way of being was subject to an intervention whereby specific creative output became a focus for a short time. Aspects of the group members’ life experiences were made into the cultural products that would form part of a coherent regeneration initiative. Again, a disjuncture occurs at the point where the existing way-of-being of the group is subject to the intervention of the Council’s vision of creative regeneration:

Over-60s group member 1: “When we finished the doors and all the rest of it, we were all invited to a party. […] So we went, and we heard all the speeches, and we were a bit disgusted really, because we didn’t even know who the people were that were talking. Warren [Bradley, leader of Liverpool City Council who sits on the board of the Liverpool Culture Company] was there, he done it, but there was this other one walking round, the meal they put on was fantastic, everything you could think of, but it was more for the dignitaries, not for us, because they had men walking round in dinner suits that were the, what is it, the guards, or whatever you like to call them, the Lord Mayor was there. And all these dignitaries, and there was glasses of wine going and everything…it was a bit overwhelming for us.”

Evidently, there are fundamental ontological differences between what creativity and social life mean to different actors involved in the Four Corners project in 2008. The City’s Cultural Strategy situates creativity according to a number of categories of conspicuous cultural consumption, either in spectacle, as economic driver, or in the iconic, and does not make room for the ongoing, dialogic and mundane understandings and uses of creativity as they unfold in the cultural landscape of the city.

Understanding ongoing encounters

J.K. Hall43 insists that to open the way for an ongoing discussion which allows for the multifariousness of creativity as it occurs in our social lives, there must first be a willingness on all sides to accept the constraints of the speech act in locally-situated contexts. Preceding that, however, there needs to be a mutual desire to base the development of creative practice on a model of an ongoing conversation. Such conditions are not currently being met in Liverpool. The Liverpool Culture Company has discursively produced a public which, while multifarious to a degree (for example, a differentiation is made in official discourse between the member of an existing community and the tourist visiting for the weekend), is still situated according to a consumer logic. This, as Barnett has suggested, reduces public democratic discourse to “deliberation over a pre-selected range of substantive issues carried on according to pre-established conventions of civility”.44 This begs the question, what then are the conditions of emergence, of becoming, that give rise to alternative voices? How is the nature of the public sphere constituted by events?

The partial data shown here from participants suggests that existing forms of regeneration projects fail to capture the ongoing-ness of creative activity, or the possibility of creativity existing in mundane forms of social interaction. The structural nature of the Four Corners project as a means by which to mediate the outcomes of Council policy to residents has resulted in a particularised notion of creativity, one which does not acknowledge the already-existing, vernacular, ongoing, and multiple forms of creativity that take place in social life. The draft Culture Strategy document published by the council in late 2008 defines, “Culture as quality of life – [as] the range of activities and experiences which raise life above the mundane, which allow self expression and which help to define and bind a sense of community and belonging.”45 However, in order to avoid the hierarchical approach of creating the kind of ‘inclusive’ creative community envisioned by urban elites such as Liverpool Culture Company – who tacitly remain as gatekeepers of such a community – we can, following Ian Mackenzie’s summation of Deleuze’s theory of political events, conceptualise the event of Liverpool ECoC 2008 as a juncture in an on-going contest between different significance groups, in pursuit of the expression of significance.

In its vision for a creative city, Liverpool City Council and its partners position creativity as out of the ordinary, as the spectacular and the iconic. The very possibility of a meaningful conversation about the place and use of creative art practice is not opened by statements like the one above that pepper the Cultural Strategy document. A key to understanding the power relations which are embedded in the activities of the Creative Communities initiative is the notion of the author. There will always be a multiple authoring in a creative city, these include perspectives which are not driven by imperatives of the spectacular, the iconic, or boosting GDP, many imperatives are simply based on mundane everyday activity. However, Liverpool City Council and its partners continue to render the cultural life of the city as a series of totalities. The event of ECoC 2008 is not capable of acknowledging the counter publics active in the city, who continue to make meaning out of the “intimate moments and spaces of everyday life”.46

Notes

1.   Evans, J and Jones, P (2008), Rethinking sustainable urban regeneration: ambiguity, creativity, and the shared territory. Environment and Planning A, Volume 40, pp 1416 - 1434 (pg 1422)
2.   Landry, C (2000), The Creative City: A toolkit for urban innovators. Earthscan. London (pg xxii).
3.   Garcia, B (2005), Deconstructing the City of Culture: The long term legacies of Glasgow 1990. Urban Studies, Vol. 42, Nos 5/6, 841–868
4.   Mooney, G (2004), Cultural Policy as Urban Transformation? Critical Reflections on Glasgow, European City of Culture 1990. Local Economy. Vol 19, No 4, 327 – 340
5.   Griffiths, R (2006) City/ Culture Discourses: Evidence from the Competition to Select the European Capital of Culture 2008. European Planning Studies. Vol 14, No 4, May 2006
6.   ‘From Identity to Event: The Changing Nature of the Public Sphere’, lain MacKenzie
7.   Ibid.
8.   Liverpool Culture Company (2006), The Art of Inclusion, Liverpool’s Creative Communities. Liverpool City Council
9.   Liverpool Culture Company (2005), Strategic Business Plan 2005 – 2009 (pg 29).
10. Bourdieu, P (1998), The Essence of Neoliberalism. Le Monde Diplomatique English Edition. http://mondediplo.com/1998/12/08bourdieu. Accessed April 21st 2009
11. Liverpool Culture Company (2006), The Art of Inclusion, Liverpool’s Creative Communities. Liverpool City Council (pg 32).
12. Ibid. (pg 32).
13. Ibid (pg 23).
14. Ibid (pg 15).
15. Ibid (pg 17).
16. Ibid (pg 22).
17. Liverpool Culture Company (2006), The Art of Inclusion, Liverpool’s Creative Communities. Liverpool City Council (pg 33). For a pre-2008 example in Liverpool see: As Broadcast in Beijing (Liverpool City Council and Merseyside Arts, Culture and Media Enterprise 2001 page D.
18. Oakley, K (2006), Include Us Out - Economic Development and Social Policy in the Creative Industries. Cultural Trends, Vol 15. No 4 pp 225 – 273.
19. Foucault 1984, pg 208 – 209.
20. Liverpool Culture Company (2006), The Art of Inclusion, Liverpool’s Creative Communities. Liverpool City Council (pg 23)
21. Ibid (pg 23)
22. Skeggs, B (2004), ‘Exchange, value and affect: Bourdieu and the self’ in Feminism after Bourdieu. Adkins, L and Skeggs, B. Eds. Blackwell/ The Sociological Review. London (pg 75).
23. Creative capital, although treated as a normative category by Liverpool City Council and its partners, has a critical context of Bourdieu’s 1986 text ‘Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste’. London: Routledge. In which  the cultural value of practices and objects takes is made meaningful through accrual and exchange, however sociologist Bev Skeggsa has noted: “Bourdieu’s emphasis on exchange, accrual and interest lead again to structural reductions with emphasis on objectification. This ignores the affectual impact of matters of taste, which produce class relations beyond the structural... in the intimate moments and spaces of everyday life”. (Skeggs 2004)
24. In Skeggs, B (2004) Exchange, value and affect: Bourdieu and “the self” in Feminism after Bourdieu. Adkins, L and Skeggs, B. Eds. Blackwell/ The Sociological Review. London.
25. Ibid (pg 78).
26. www.Impacts ’08.com
27. Holquist, M (2002) Dialogism. 2nd edition. Routledge, London (pg 52).
28. Holquist, M (2002) Dialogism. 2nd edition. Routledge, London (pg 63).
29. Burkitt, I (1998) The Death and Rebirth of the Author: The Bakhtin Circle and Bourdieu on Individuality, Language and Revolution in Bakhtin and the Human Sciences. Mayerfield Bell, M and Gardinaer, M eds. Sage Publications London (pg 168).
30. Barthes, The Death of the Author (1977)
31. Gunson and Collins (1997) From the I to the We: Discourse Ethics, Identity, and the Pragmatics of Partnership in the West of Scotland. Communication Theory. Vol 7, no 4. November 278 – 300 ( pg 292).
32. Gardiner, M (2004) Wild publics and grotesque symposiums: Habermas and Bakhtin on dialogue, everyday life and the public sphere. The Sociological Review. Vol 52 issue S1 pp 28 – 48 (pg39).
33. Bakhtin, M.M (1984) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. C. Emerson Ed. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis (pg 95 his emphasis)
34. ‘From Identity to Event: The Changing Nature of the Public Sphere’, lain MacKenzie
35. Gardiner, M (2004) Wild publics and grotesque symposiums: Habermas and Bakhtin on dialogue, everyday life and the public sphere. The Sociological Review. Vol 52 issue S1 pp 28 – 48 (pg 32).
36. Four Corners exhibition brochure pg 38
37. For a critical engagement with creativity as a new moral imperative see Osbourne’s ‘Against Creativity: A Philistine Rant’ (2003) in Economy and Society vol 32 no.52.
38. Liverpool Culture Company (2006) The Art of Inclusion, Liverpool’s Creative Communities. Liverpool City Council (pg 11).
39. In 2007, the Four Corners project produced an art work called ‘Our House’, in which a derelict block of residential flats near to the city centre was entirely covered with doors taken from CPO’ed or renovated houses in the city, inside the block was an exhibition of work created by people in “Liverpool’s five communities”.
40. Paragraph 68 page 16, The Liverpool Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy Framework and Action Plan, published by Liverpool City Council September 2002
41. Allen, C. (2007) Housing Market Renewal and Social Class. Routledge. London
42. Four Corners exhibition brochure pg 47.
43. J.K. Hall (1993) The role of oral practices in the accomplishment of our everyday lives. Applied Linguistics 14 pp 145 - 166
44. Barnett in Logan, O (2009) Realism and Democracy, the politics of the everyday in photography from the Photo League to Magnum, MA Dissertation in Cultural and Media Studies, The Open University, Faculty of Social Sciences
45.  Liverpool City Council. Draft Cultural Strategy 2008. Pg 8; Oakley, K (2006) Include Us Out- Economic Development and Social Policy in the Creative Industries.  Cultural Trends. Vol 15. No 4 pp 225 - 273
46. Skeggs, B (2004), ‘Exchange, value and affect: Bourdieu and the self’ in Feminism after Bourdieu. Adkins, L and Skeggs, B. Eds. Blackwell/ The Sociological Review. London

 

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KPMG and the Accountancy Oligopoly
John Barker

Capitalism is a mode of production, not a system. True, it has its own internal patterns of circulation, dynamics and crises, but it has always depended on external kick-starts like the looting of South American gold and silver; colonial real politik; state infrastructure – both material and as protectorate; war; and a variety of nominally neutral intermediaries. These intermediaries mainly consist of corporate lawyers, credit-ratings agencies, and accountants/auditors. They are profit-making in their own right but take their share by increasing the totality of privatized surplus value. In the ongoing crisis of this mode of production however, this has also taken the form of realising – or attempting to realise – potential future surplus value in the present, as if it had already been created.

At its simplest, this has involved an over-valuation of capitalist assets. One of the intermediaries that has connived with or been instrumental in this over-valuation have been the credit-ratings agencies, an oligopoly of three. For a brief period there was talk of limiting their power – and perhaps there will be regulations – but almost immediately on the back of the Crunch-and-Squeeze they resumed their god-like role in deciding the interest rate at which debtors, both public and private, should pay.

The accountancy/auditing companies/partnerships are a global oligopoly of four, all with histories of merger. They are: PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Deloitte Touche, Ernst & Young, and KPMG. In their case there is little talk of post-Crunch independent regulation, even though it is valuation which should be their expertise. They have not been subject to even temporary blame though they were both consultants and auditors for Northern Rock (PwC), HBOS (KPMG), and Royal Bank of Scotland (Deloitte Touche). This particular ‘conflict of interest’ was addressed in the USA by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, but the Act did not prevent the over-valuations that precipitated the Crunch. It helps the oligopoly’s freedom of action that they control the regulatory agencies of the accountancy sphere, and, in the UK, that they are integrated into government. This involves profitable consultancy contracts with government and a revolving-door between government and oligopoly personnel. At the same time, they undermine the financing of this very same protectorate government via a proactive role in tax evasion.

Auditing has a necessarily captive clientele, and these four audit 99 of the FTSE 100 top UK companies. They are, all in all, an especially privileged group. In addition, by lobbying receptive governments, especially New Labour, they have all the tax advantages of being partnerships, while now enjoying a large degree of the limited liability accorded to non-partnership companies. Now, in the wake of the Crunch-and-Squeeze, they are, according to Prem Sikka, lobbying for yet more protection from claims against them by investors in their role as auditors.

This investigation focuses on KPMG which had worldwide profits of $20 billion (roughly £11bn), of which £1.6bn came from its UK operation. The investigation was prompted by KPMG’s role, as administrators, in attempting to deny the UK workers of Visteon their rightful redundancy money. Most of the evidence about KPMG’s many legal scrapes comes from the UK and the USA though they are global issues. This is intertwined with regulatory systems which, despite Sarbanes-Oxley, are industry-dominated, and raises the question of whether, given that it is a global mode of production, it is possible to talk of an “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism with distinctive neo-liberal characteristics. This is outside the purpose of this investigation, but it’s hard not to notice how Gordon Brown talks big about global financial and reform, and then cries foul at all attempts to seriously regulate financial capital based in London.1 Given that it is an ad hoc, Big Four-dominated institution that determines international accounting standards, it suggests that these characteristics are functional to global capital as a whole.

The present crisis is making for all kinds of anger as its impact on not-bankers and not-auditors is felt, and will be felt for years to come. The intention of this investigation is to help put the spotlight on the outrageous and shameless actions of this auditor/tax avoidance oligopoly. It aims to show how the oligopoly in general, and KPMG, in particular – a worldwide organisation with offices in 24 tax havens – has their sticky fingers in so many areas of economic and political life, in which everything it does is to the benefit of capital and the individual rich.2 It also brings to light the elitism that rationalizes both its highly lucrative government consultancy, and its resistance to formal regulation which it does not control. It is that form of anti-democratic elitism which says that only the few who are in the know can understand the complexities of finance and contracts, even when those in the know are self-interested.

Flexible Futures

A prominent characteristic of KPMG is their virtuosity in self-aggrandisement, as they persistently advertise their supposed virtues in their own publications. Investigative reporting back in 2002 revealed they would take a £500 fee for an hour of advice on personal tax avoidance.3 It’s the case that the role of administrator, one of several that it plays, is not a major source of its revenues.4 In 2009 they acted for Ford Motor Company and its spin-off Visteon, in attempting to deny redundancy money to workers in Belfast, Enfield and Basildon.

When Visteon was spun-off from Ford in 2000, workers were given contracts mirroring those of Ford car workers. This would mean that they would get 12-18 months’ wages as redundancy money. When Visteon in the UK was liquidated, KPMG as its administrators started from the position that the workers were not entitled to anything other than a cash payment equal to 16 weeks’ pay, whether you had worked there 15 years or not. Its argument; that Visteon was a separate entity from Ford, and had been so since 2000. Media slimeballs joined in, saying things were different from how they were in 2000, and that they couldn’t expect contracts from then to be applicable. But in this case KPMG backed down in the face of successful occupation and picketing of Visteon plants.

• In June 2007, 1100 workers at KwikSave were made redundant with no promise of payment from them as administrators.

• In March 2008, redundancies were made without any consultation at Texol Technical Solutions, Dundee.5 KPMG’s Blair Nimmo said they took their position as administrators “extremely seriously”, and advised the workers involved that they could talk to “their local Citizens’ Advice Bureau”.

Nothing could show how aloof the partners of KPMG are from the realities of poor people on the receiving end. If, and that’s an if, there is a local office of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, there are likely to be queues around the block for those times in the week when it is open to give advice. Instead, from this other planet, KPMG offer up what they call a Downsizing Service: “The provision of independent and professional advice to staff in redundancy situations can assist a company in negotiating, implementing and delivering on an efficient and non-confrontational severance package.” Non-confrontational? The Visteon workers would have been screwed had they not either occupied or then picketed the company’s plant with the company’s machinery inside. Independent? Who pays for a Downsizing Service? Efficient? Efficient for whom?

Fact is, KPMG likes having it all ways. On the one hand in a briefing on redundancies it argues that they are not necessarily the best way for companies to react to the “experience of downturn”. Why? Because, as KPMG’s Human Resources director, Dave Condor, pointed out (in commenting on a survey by the company itself) making redundancies will cost employers on average £10,000 per head – which could take several months to recoup. In the cases above it would seem KPMG are doing their best to lower that average. While talking of taking the advantages of retaining staff into consideration, KPMG produced another report on the virtues of outsourcing, in which it identifies 31 cities “which are rapidly emerging as leading pretenders to the traditional powerhouses such as Bangalore, Chennai or Shanghai”, and tips Buenos Aires, Winnipeg and Belfast. Perhaps in the latter case it has in mind those redundant Visteon workers? None of this has stopped the pats-on-the-back KPMG has received for instituting sabbaticals and other forms of temporary lay-offs for its own staff at the beginning of 2009 under the title “Flexible Futures”.

Oversight(s)

It is as auditors that the “Big Four”, who audit 97% of the FTSE 350, which by law must be audited, are most legally privileged. The other privilege being that they operate as partnerships with the tax perks this entails, but which in theory make them liable for unlimited losses of companies they have audited and are subject to legal redress by investors. In recent years the Big Four have gained a considerable measure of limited liability with their duty being defined as to the company, and the principle that only the individual partner concerned is liable.6

In theory, auditors have comprehensive powers. The recent House of Commons Treasury Select Committee on the Banking Crisis refers to their privileged position: “Apart from the regulator, nobody else has the right to delve into a company’s records, speak to their staff about decisions made and strategies being pursued.”7 KPMG has the biggest client list in the UK, and this function, as for all the oligopoly, “gives them easy access to senior management and helps them to sell bolt-on services,” like consultancy and tax avoidance. The concept of auditing is for the public interest but the client is not the public. The dangers of wishing to please the client (as has been the case with the ratings agencies) exist even without the bolt-ons, but these augment the dangers. As with the credit-ratings agencies, there is a built-in conflict of interest: they are being paid to give a true financial picture by those who employ them to do so.

With such powers as they have, auditors, especially the Big Four, have no excuses when they are shown to have gone along with untruthful financial reporting whether through laziness or a self-interested disinclination to challenge the senior managements of clients. On the other hand, there is a fault in current reporting standards themselves, like mark-to-market asset valuation. Compliance with the standards did not produce transparent accounts, but then it is the partly Big Four-controlled International Accountancy Standards Board which makes the standards.

In 2002 KPMG “settled” charges with the US Securities and Exchange commission (SEC) for “improper professional conduct” as auditors for Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc, which had overstated its revenues by $250 million. This settling meant neither admission nor denial, but in the wake of Enron’s collapse such not-proven deals are worth a lot to the oligopoly. KPMG repeatedly relied on what Gemstar management told it, despite the powers KPMG has and even when what they were told contradicted their own audit work. The SEC’s regional director, Randall R. Lee, talked, however, only of the “dangers of auditors who rely excessively on the honesty of management”.

In 2003 the SEC this time filed charges in an alleged accounting fraud involving KPMG and Xerox; again, for improperly booked revenues. KPMG LLP’s chairman and chief executive Eugene O’Kelly described this as a “great injustice”. He went to say that, “At the very worst this is a disagreement over complex professional judgements.” Nevertheless, despite this ‘too-complex-for-anyone-not-in-the-game’ line, KPMG paid out $80m in compensation in 2006.8

The largest case brought against KPMG is one that comes out of the Crunch-and-Squeeze. At the end of March 2009 it was announced that the liquidators of New Century, the collapsed US subprime mortgage lender, were suing the auditors for $1bn, claiming that it “assisted in the misstatements and certified the materially misleading financial statements” filed by the lender. The accusation being that KPMG was responsible for the collapse because, as the FT put it, “it allowed the lender to use inappropriate accounting that led it to underestimate the provisions it needed to cover bad loans. This made its position look better and gave it access to more funds.” The case is as yet unresolved but the liquidator’s complaint is that KPMG silenced questions raised by its own experts for fear of upsetting its client. In response to such a question the auditor leader’s email reads: “As far as I’m concerned we are done. The client thinks we are done. All we are going to do is piss everyone off.”

And they are still at it: This year the US audit watchdog PCAOB – created by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act – has accused KPMG of failing to “test some clients’ assumptions and internal controls in several cases.”9

In the UK “serious negligence” was admitted in June 2008 in the matter of KPMG auditing Independent Insurance, with 500,000 policy-holders including London Fire Brigade, which had collapsed in 2001. Purposeful negligence would be more apt: not checking contracts (stop-loss reinsurance) that they knew to be suspicious and thereby a loss of £105m became a profit of £22m. The admission and the pay-outs involved took seven years. The time-lag is not unusual in such cases, and, as with many British enquiries, the heat was long gone.

The most revealing cases however involve the arms manufacturer BAE Systems, and HBOS, one of the British banks caught by the Crunch before the Squeeze. KPMG were and are BAE’s auditors. New Labour has made BAE untouchable by the Serious Fraud Office in relation to bribes to secure the company’s biggest Saudi contract. Some detail did however emerge in The Guardian10 in 2004 when BAE’s Novolyte dirty-washing vault in Switzerland was brought to light, and the fact that it had set up secret subsidiaries in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), a tax haven where KPMG has what is in effect a subsidiary but over which the SFO has no investigative power. In response to the article a spokesman for the auditors said: “We do not consider the matters raised by The Guardian as representing a failure on the part of KPMG. UK company law requires only that principal subsidiaries are listed in a group’s accounts.” This is a typical resort to letter-of-the-law rationalisation and is, besides, a moot point. Prem Sikka pointed out at the time that these subsidiaries should have been disclosed as BAE formed and appointed directors to them. More important, the letter-of-the-law argument did not say whether KPMG was aware of these BVI undisclosed subsidiaries. The presumption can only be at best that the auditors turned a blind eye, as is also what appears to be the case of Siemens; a bribery scandal that is still out in the open and has become a cinematic political drama in Greece.

HBOS

There is an in-built conflict of interest in auditing per se since the auditor is paid by those they are making a financial check on. This is amplified when they are consultants to those whose accounts they are checking. Such consultancy work now forms a major part of oligopoly revenues and is a normal progression in the UK.11

Prem Sikka and John Dunn note “...the importance of audit as a vehicle for securing other, more lucrative business. Audit provides an opening for accountancy firms to impress their potential industrial or commercial employers with zeal about punctuality, meeting deadlines, attention to detail, the value of surveillance...”12 To which we might add, ‘turning a blind eye’; as is clear from looking at the auditing record and failures of KPMG and others of the Big Four.

With HBOS, so Crunched as to require a forced Lloyds Bank takeover, no legal wrongdoing is suggested. Neither is it exceptional – Deloitte Touche’s role in the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) fiasco being another spectacular case.13 But it is revealing both as to the nature of regulation and supervision in this world, and is a stark example of KPMG’s ability to pontificate in areas where it has shown itself incompetent. The relationship was not new. KPMG had been auditor/consultants/tax advisers to HBOS since 2000, in which time it has been paid £55.8m in audit fees and £45.1m in other fees. These other fees included its provision of 30 “integration experts” during HBOS’s Northern Rock-style ambitious phase for a takeover of Abbey. Allegations were made by HBOS’s former head of risk, Paul Moore, that an aggressive sales culture was undermining its risk policy changes which were approved by KPMG.14 According to the FSA, the changes were “fully investigated by KPMG which concluded that the changes made by HBOS were appropriate.” What was odd was the very fact of Moore’s complaints being referred to KPMG for further investigation when KPMG themselves were the auditors. If any of Moore’s allegations had been shown to be true, “it would have reflected badly on the auditor’s own assessment of internal controls and such like.” Something similar may happen if the FSA’s belated investigation into the actions of RBS executives takes place, given that Deloitte Touche, the bank’s expensive auditors, and the rest of the Big Four, have been invited to bid for work linked to the investigation. In fact, as Prem Sikka has pointed out: “All banks claim to have complied with extant accounting standards, but their published accounts are opaque. Accounting rules and auditors have allowed banks to show toxic assets at inflated values”.15 This was done by allowing an accounting practice called ‘mark-to-model’ which allowed banks to estimate values for financial instruments.

None of this prevented KPMG from sponsoring this year’s British banker’s annual international conference, the theme of which was that lawmakers and regulators needed to take care not to “over-regulate”. Nor from KPMG producing an ‘Integrity Survey’, the latest of which is for 2008-9. It has tables measuring how employees believe “policies and procedures are easy to bypass or override”, and “rewards are based on results not the means used to achieve them”. All this as if such questions had nothing to do with KPMG itself. As if the firm itself had never overridden policies in the interest of profit.16 A similar spurious objectivity is presented in the ‘Looking Back’ section of its own 2008 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) survey. “The first part of the decade,” it reads, “was marred by corporate scandals with companies coming under scrutiny for dubious accountancy practices and corporate government approaches. This caused regulators, shareholders, employees and consumers to demand better ways of tracking the health and value of a company – ways that included a departure from the traditional financial report.” Dubious accountancy practices? Besides which, the problem was not with the “traditional”, but in the black holes of what does not have to be reported.

Neither has any of this prevented them from playing the objective wise-after-the-event-guy in a glossy KPMG publication entitled ‘Rethinking Banks’ Approach to Risk Management’. It is as if the HBOS events had never occurred; as if KPMG were not being sued as auditors in the case of New Century for the kind of inappropriate accounting that contributed to the Crunch-and-Squeeze. The glossy instead talks of “streamlining” risk management responsibilities, of “better information for decision-making”, the need for “robust data”, and changing the “prevailing organisational culture”. This culture is what KPMG itself is integral to. Meanwhile the good ship KPMG sails on, the past is the past, and havens ahoy!

Trojan Horse

In the case of KPMG, it is its relationship with governments – an across-the-range involvement with public private partnerships, consultancy gigs, and privatizations of all sorts – that stands out; a relationship that flourishes despite the auditing failures described. Their sponsored City of London KPMG Academy had Gordon Brown and Ed Balls there for its opening in September 2009. KPMG claim themselves to have advised on over 1700 PPP projects and to be the pre-eminent PPP adviser in the USA.17 In the UK, Prem Sikka talks of how “government departments have been colonised by accountants and accounting technology with little evidence of any improvement in government accountability or performance. Accounting firms are major beneficiaries of the state feeding of consultants.” KPMG were appointed as consultants to the Ministry of Defence in the development of the RAF’s air-to-air refuelling fleet in 1999, and were still taking their whack from this project (The Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft) in 2008. At the time, it was the largest Private Finance Initiative (PFI) made in the UK. These are the best-known, or most notorious, forms of public private partnerships. John Heartfield estimates that the major consultancy firms, the Big Four plus McKinsey and Capita, had taken £70bn from this work by 2006.18 From Craif and Brooks he quotes the estimate that NHS PFI deals of £5bn would earn a straight £2bn for the advisers that brokered them.19 They are a pre-Crunch-and-Squeeze form of Private Profit / Public Risk. There is also strong anecdotal evidence of single line invoices from the biggest consultants to government, invoices for millions of pounds.20

Not content with being simply one more outfit profiting from privatisation arrangements and the political connections involved, KPMG’s Corporate Finance department talks of having provided “cutting edge” and “industry-leading” advice for Public Private Partnerships, and as procurement consultants.21 In reality with PPP, as in its auditing work, KPMG is unconcerned about conflicts of interest whereby it advises that public contracts be carried out by one of its own clients.22

It also benefits from what has become acceptable, the revolving door of personnel to and from government to specific profit-making entities:
• It has been allowed to place secondees in sensitive departments in the Inland Revenue, Department of Trade and Industry, and the Serious Fraud Office; allowed when its record in tax-avoidance schemes was well-known.

• It loaned KPMG-man Rees Aronson to serve as the Labour Party’s finance director for a year.

• In September 2009, it emerged that the Department of Health – from whom KPMG receives consultancy fees – former commissioning chief Mark Britnell, a prime mover in health privatization, is to join KPMG.

• It sponsored and had a KPMG partner on an ‘independent’ commission set up by a Labour think-tank to promote PFI deals.

This latter instance is hardly exceptional in an era of think-tank reality, when it is hard to know what research in almost any field is not financed by self-interested parties. In this respect, it is hard to match KPMG in its brazenness. Thus they have produced their own ‘Effectiveness of Operational Contracts in PFI’ survey (2007). It praises “innovation” and calls for “flexibility”, so that the “current style of rigorous competitive tendering for contracts under narrowly-defined PFI” is not the norm. It does this even though there is no evidence of “narrowly defined” contracts in this, their own survey. The message appears to be, ‘Nothing too rigorous please!’ And then, the Foreword, with a cheek that takes the breath away, says: “We hope this survey will help to inform the debate – all too easily hijacked by politically motivated and emotive sound bites – about how to deliver the best value for money public services.”23 This when the debate has in fact been hijacked by self-interest while KPMG talks of the benefits to innovation from PFI, and that most contracts are performing well.

KPMG presents itself as friend to that innocent abroad, the public sector, saying: “We share a vision of a world in which public services requiring capital assets can be provided efficiently and effectively for the lowest cost compatible with the quality of service demanded.” This friendship is necessary, apparently, because, “PPPs are complex transactions and project teams may lack specialist experience. This can put the public sector at a disadvantage in negotiations with potential partners with considerable global experience.”24 At which point in come KPMG’s seasoned professionals. They would appear not to have been of much use in their self-proclaimed role as protectors of the innocents. Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, also noted the insufficient commercial experience of public sector contract managers, but his take was rather different, saying: “The public sector has allowed itself to be taken for a ride ... changes during a 25-30 year contract are inevitable, but they should not be costing the taxpayer an arm and a leg.” This is especially so given how vehicles have been created by British companies with PFI contracts that can be switched into offshore funds: “Effectively companies avoid tax on most capital gains from refinancing the contract, or on extra cash squeezed out of the government to pay for additional services.”25

KPMG also qualifies this protection of the innocent role – at which it would seem to have been so ineffective – just in case this might imply that the private sector is predatory. So it goes on to talk of how beneficial is “private sector business insight.” And then, talking of the need to sell the whole business to the public, it talks of the necessity of the “political will to drive through PPPs over the long term ... Without it, private sector operators may divert key resources elsewhere.”

This, to put it mildly, is a moot point. For one thing, such projects are, relatively speaking, without risk. And for another, it is hardly coincidental that in a period of surplus capital, companies and corporations have been so keen to pile into the education and health sectors where, previously, their role had been limited.

KPMG has recently produced its own evidence that “performance” in PFI-built schools is higher than the average. In its own publication, ‘Effectiveness of operational contracts in PFI’, they talk of 45% of education contracts reporting “very good” performance; and 58% happiness both in education and health with “operational relationships”. The biggest problem experienced in both sectors, it says, were cutbacks in public funding. This is its own account of things. Whereas, Partnership for Schools (yet one more of New Labour’s unelected bodies with power) a quango in which the consultancy firms have influence, has been accused of bullying local authorities, who risk being cut out of Building Schools for the Future if they don’t accept new schools and costly ITC systems.26

Privatization Bagmen

Where things get really seedy is in the ‘developing world’ in which KPMG acts as a privatization consultant-enabler. To state the obvious, privatization is based on the ideological assumption that “efficiency” can only be achieved by those pursuing private profit, whether as individuals, corporations or partnerships. Once again the UK Government, via its Department for International Aid has been prominent in giving out such consultancy contracts, especially under Clare Short. It sold the UK as a leader in worldwide privatisation with briefings sponsored by members of the oligopoly. Contracts went to the free market fundamentalists of the Adam Smith Institute, but it is the oligopoly that has done best, as has been documented by John Hilary of War on Want27 and again by Action Aid.28 The World Bank, with its own ideological commitment to privatisation, which has the added benefit to international capital of increasing the dependency of basic services consumers, is another contractor. A key role of the contracted consultancies is to “bypass the democratic process, with debate restricted to a small coterie within favoured government ministries.”29 To ensure this role, specific project aid is frequently dependent on recipient acceptance of such consultants.

Citing Privatisation International for their relative placing in 1999, Hilary notes that KPMG took second place to PricewaterhouseCoopers in the number of privatisation mandates it held. Second place reflects their relative size, but for KPMG it still amounted to 153 such contracts, and in 2003 it was the chief beneficiary of DFID contracts. In one instance cited by Hilary, both KPMG and PwC were consultants on a World Bank-backed electricity privatisation in Orissa. It is a reform programme described as “a fiasco” by The Hindu reporting on the findings of the Kanungo Committee’s report on what had happened.30 It had resulted in retail power tariffs being increased while peak shortages continued. Electricity has been a favourite area for contracts and KPMG, was appointed to provide advisory services in both Africa and India.

The privatization push has not been matched by the development of agencies to regulate the new basic services contractors. In many countries where there has been such development, John Hilary notes “privatization consultants have been appointed to advise on the reform of existing regulatory institutions or the creation of new ones in order to regulate the privatised service.”31 He cites such a role played by PwC in the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Panama. Meanwhile, in 2002, KPMG was contracted for a similar role in Bangladesh to increase transparency and raise public standards in its finance ministry. This when finance minister Rahman was the very same person who had founded and headed KPMG’s own local operation. This is very dark farce. DFID’s line was that this was a part of an effort to ensure that UK aid money was being properly spent. The contract was worth £15m. The good ship KPMG, however, sails on, oblivious to the existence of real events. “KPMG member firms make a critical contribution to the world every day.”32

In fact they play a double role in privatisation mania. The World Bank has made a pincer movement whereby governments are less able to finance health and education responsibilities as a result of pressure to get rid of import taxes, a previously major source of revenue. But on an even larger scale ‘developing world’ governments are denied revenue by that form of tax avoidance by multinational companies known as ‘transfer pricing’.

Soak the Bloody Poor

There has been a sustained campaign over the last year from Christian Aid33 and the Tax Justice Network (TJN) on the tax losses caused by transfer (mis)pricing, with an emphasis on the impact on the ‘less-developed’ world. More recently there has been a burst of interest and political rhetoric on the matter of tax avoidance generally; a conjuncture of in-the-know whistleblowers; money laundering-for-terrorism talk, and the Crunch-and-Squeeze with its consequential crisis of national deficits. A common factor has been the existence of tax havens, a large number of which are British dependencies. The 24 tax haven offices and ‘projects’ of KPMG is a far higher number than others of the oligopoly. These havens are found in the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos, Channel Islands, and the British Virgin Islands. Britain’s direct takeover of the scandal-hit Turks and Caicos, and now the bankruptcy-hit Cayman Islands, has increased public focus on the havens. This is not incidental – the OECD has estimated that $5 trillion lies in tax havens, and a partner from KPMG (Ginish Vanvari) estimates $225bn in tax is lost worldwide – but necessary to capital accumulation in the present period.34

Transfer (mis)pricing between, but mostly within, trans-national corporations is possible because they are required only to produce annual “global consolidated accounts” rather than country-by-country accounts which is the demand being made by Christian Aid and TJN for G20 implementation. Without it the price of components, intellectual property rights, management services, and so on, can be priced at will according to their tax avoidance potential. The estimate is that between $160bn and $190bn per annum is being lost as a consequence of capital flight and other means.35 It is the other fork of the pincer movement for privatizations described above. The country-by-country policy aim is no guarantee that such (mis)pricing will disappear, but then policy is never enough.

It is also – or should be – well known in the ‘developed world’.36 In 2003 a set of illegal US tax shelter varieties (Blips, Flips, Opis and SOS) set up by KPMG in the USA were discovered with the help of a whistleblower. These shelters helped wealthy clients avoid paying $2.5bn which they should have rightfully paid. This is a criminal offence, and in 2005 the US member firm of KPMG International (KPMG LLP) was accused of fraud. In 2007, by paying a fine of $456m and agreeing to some minor conditions, the criminal charges were dropped. Its instigators were not however low-level employees who could be given the rotten apple treatment, but senior partners. The US justice system is strong on the pragmatism of plea bargaining, but once again it was crucial to KPMG that it avoided criminal conviction. With the help of Judge Lewis Kaplan and the selective application of constitutional rights, it was not convicted. Two individuals, only, were finally convicted in December 2008. The response of KPMG CEO Timothy Flynn echoes the narrative provided by every official wrongdoer in recent years, whether it be failed bank or criticized prison governor. He said: “KPMG is a better and stronger firm today, having learned much from the experience.”

This was not, however, an isolated case to learn from. The collapse of WorldCom as well as Enron revealed a set of tax avoidance schemes, and prompted Sarbanes-Oxley. Citing the US Bankruptcy Court in 2004, Prem Sikka describes how WorldCom, advised by KPMG, “used a variety of strategies to avoid taxes at home and abroad. Transfer pricing techniques alone enabled it to amass $20bn of revenues on which it paid little or no corporate taxes.”37 In the same paper Sikka, citing US Senate Committee on Permanent Investigations in 2003, describes how KPMG created a ‘Tax Innovation Centre’, which was treated as a profits centre.38 Significantly, the Committee concluded that “the penalties for non-compliance are much less than the potential profits from selling the tax product.” In 2005 KPMG was condemned again by the same committee.

Meanwhile, KPMG’s new UK boss at the time, John Griffiths-Jones, complained that they had come in for some of the blame heaped on the US branch. “It is not something that happened here and we should acknowledge that,” he said. He went on to say that they had no need of such things. “From our perspective our success is mostly a London story. There is lots of money flowing through the City and it’s our transactions service business [their role with HBOS, for example] that is benefiting from it.” There is, though, plenty of evidence to suggest that this disinterest in tax avoidance is not true. An internal study by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) concluded that 50% of the Big Four’s tax fees came from “commercial tax planning” and “artificial avoidance schemes.”39

The Guardian has often given opinion space to Prem Sikka and his revelations about the Big Four. In February 2009, catching the recent conjunction of factors that have highlighted tax avoidance and tax havens, the newspaper went further with “a tax gap debate”. It highlighted some KPMG tax avoidance schemes, two of which were designed by one of KPMG’s prominent “wealth advisors”. These for once were outlawed at tribunal but are being appealed, with a KPMG spokesman saying: “This type of highly technical tax planning was widely available in the tax marketplace at the time.” The language is extraordinary: “highly technical” – so easily misunderstood then by non-specialists; “planning” – the common-sense planning of any sensible person; “widely available” – ie, that’s OK then, it was normal; “the tax marketplace” – which suggests a commodity like any other, susceptible to the bargain hunter.

The Guardian followed up its series by revealing an internal KPMG memo from head of tax, Sue Bonney, on how to avoid answering questions about tax, but also providing template answers just in case they could not be avoided. “Tax is a business cost to be managed like any other,” she says. And that, “tax avoidance is legal. KPMG is compliant with the disclosure regime and accordingly transparent.” This hardly renounces tax avoidance, and tells us once again that nominal ‘transparency’ is no guarantee of accountability. Instead she says: “We work ourselves to a set of principles which govern what we will and will not undertake.” Self-regulation as usual, but, in addition, it turns out, it is working with government on key tax “policy dilemmas which face the Treasury at the moment and where we are actively engaged with them as they work out their response to those challenges.” But if tax avoidance is legal, how is the challenge of making sure all tax is paid to be realised so that, say, public services do not need to be cut?

Who Guards The Guards?

It’s a reasonable rule of thumb that the use of an anachronistic image to describe present-day reality is going to be dodgy. As the same old banality is wheeled out to oppose enforceable regulation, we’re entitled to ask: ‘Red tape – in the computer age?’ What is actually meant are things like health and safety regulations for workers. Regulations of this type have been hollowed out over the years and replaced by self-regulation. This is one characteristic which has encouraged the notion of an Anglo-Saxon capitalism. With the oligopoly, one of the most dangerous rationalisations of self-regulation is that only the self-interested have the expertise to regulate. Tax schemes are “highly technical” and cynical revenue overvaluation, as in the case of Xerox, are “complex professional judgements”. At this year’s KPMG-sponsored British Banker’s Association annual, its Financial Services partner, Bill Michael, made a pre-emptive strike against regulation in his keynote speaking slot saying, “Complexity is here to stay”.

This rationalisation has been used repeatedly in response to demands for serious regulation, one of which has been directly aimed at the oligopoly’s compromising disciplinary action and regulatory independence by Peter Montagnon.40 The regulatory institution, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), is full of senior figures from the oligopoly, and responded to Montagnon’s criticism that there might be conflicts of interest by saying that though this might be the case more independent regulation could leave it looking “out of touch.” Out of touch from whom?

An attack on the predominance of the Big Four as a “dangerous time bomb” by Alexander Shaub (Director General of internal markets at the EC) before another self-interested group, the European Federation of Chartered Accountants, was rejected on the grounds that “it could discourage auditors from developing genuine expert knowledge of a company’s affairs.”41 Here they’ve upped the ante – it’s not just expert knowledge they alone have, but genuine expert knowledge.

New Labour, with its fetishizing of self-interested professionalism, has embraced this with enthusiasm. So much so that, despite its presence in so many tax havens, KPMG was selling advice to the government on tax havens like Belize. Now, KPMG’s Sue Bonney talks of working with the Treasury on key tax policy dilemmas. This doesn’t come from nowhere; of the 18 or more people KPMG has placed in government departments over the years, three were loaned to the Inland Revenue. An Inland Revenue internal report of 2000 talked of these placements helping to “modernise” itself with outsiders while feeling that “one of our difficulties is that people often perceive a potential conflict of interest.” This is classic New Labour: it’s not that there is a conflict of interest, it’s that people might perceive it to be so.

In practice, regulation remains in the hands of the self-interested. At the Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry into the banking crisis42 some serious issues were raised as to the Big Four’s record:
• The payment to auditors for non-audit (consultancy) work43

• The failure to seriously question the ability of borrowers to repay loans

• The non-disclosure of off-balance sheet vehicles’ liabilities (which the USA’s Sarbanes-Oxley Act does aim to deal with)

• The committee went so far as to “be concerned about the issue of auditor independence”, and even “the concentration of audit work in so few major firms.”44

Yet each time, these concerns were referred back to the Financial Reporting Council as if this had a monopoly on expertise and was neutral.45 In reality, it is an ad hoc institution full of Big Four-associated personnel, including chairman Peter Boyle who trained and worked for Coopers & Lybrand, precursor of PwC.46 On the auditor/consultant conflict of interest issue he said it would “take note” of the concern and would be publishing a review of “ethical standards for auditors”, but pre-empted this by saying that the FRC did not judge such situations to be impairing auditor independence. The FRC’s Audit Inspection Unit and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW) chimed in to say that the “quality of auditing in the UK remained fundamentally sound with no systemic weakness.”47

If this is the case, then it can only mean, in light of the Crunch, that accountancy standards are not up to scratch, and yet these standards are imposed by the International Accounting Standards Board. On this the usual rationalisation was presented to the Committee by Brendan Nelson, KPMG’s Vice Chairman, who said that the Board “was looking at the complexity in financial statements and seeing whether they needed to be restructured to make them easier to understand”. But this Board is itself compromised as it is partly funded by the Big Four (through a foundation registered in a tax haven) who also appoint their own representatives to its committees and impose standards internationally. This form of modern neo-colonialism not only facilitated the Crunch, but, as Prem Sikka puts it, has almost no reference to “principles of honesty of social responsibility.”

The Ethics Business

KPMG is a significant, worldwide, profit-driven servicer of capital. In some sectors, like the supermarket oligopoly, the tactic of naming and shaming has had some impact in the matter of super-exploited workers in the sub-contracted chains of food production. Shamed because of their ethical pretensions. KPMG has no such direct chains, though there are those who clean its offices. KPMG is seemingly shameless in what it does and yet is thin-skinned. Its grotesque company song was ridiculed on a web site, prompting a complaint in pompous legalese by a senior manager for global brand and regulatory compliance of an absence of agreed contract. At the same time it can switch from letter-of-the-law rationalisations of its shameful behaviour to grandiose ethical and green claims at will.

Sometimes it is sheer front, as with its Integrity Survey and its marketing of a programme called ‘The Ethical Compass’ to business schools nationwide. This consists of videos, case studies and role plays designed to get students engaged in a thought process about the kind of ethical choices they will have to make.48 OK, so they’re marketing it. OK, it is obviously a recruiting tool, but according to audit partner Scott Szabo it will help young accountants to be “prepared to recognize ethical issues and take action before an ethical violation takes place”.

More significant in its own eyes is its role in Corporate Social Responsibility. CSR is yet anther slice of ‘self-regulation’ in which the corporate world decides what is socially responsible. KPMG produces the CSR survey, cited above, and, being KPMG, there has to be a large dollop of self-praise: “KPMG member firms make a critical contribution to the world every day”. A survey of its own staff in all member firms “indicated that 79% wanted to use their skills to directly support an NGO or charity”. And, in case you haven’t had enough: ‘KPMG Values’ state that each member firm is “Committed to Our Communities... Using the Millennium Development Goals as our blueprint we have embarked on an initiative entitled the ‘KPMG Global Project’.”49

For itself, its claim to Brownie points centres around its green/sustainability credentials.50 However, KPMG has had to take second place to PricewaterhouseCoopers in the profitable and murky world of carbon trading,51 despite a KPMG Carbon Management Systems which supports a Carbon Disclosures Board, formed to get climate change information into mainstream reports. But at the same time there is also a KPMG Carbon Advisory Group with “a dedicated team of 200 professionals’’ with “vast experience and understanding of the carbon market”. So what do they do? It works on the basis that “climate change is an economic issue, which, like other strategic business concerns, should be addressed at board level in order to maximize the potential business benefit.”52 In addition, it offers itself as a leader in the “field of sustainability”. With its own KPMG Global Sustainability Services it is, it says, a “market leader in offering assurance and verification services for sustainability reports.”53

What Then?

The gap between what KPMG does in the services it offers capital, and the flim-flam with which it advertises itself, opens it up to naming and shaming, just as the Crunch has revealed its self-interested incompetence and the suffering this is causing. This is not an unimportant possibility, but it has never been enough in itself to change much. What this investigation has tried to show is not just this gap, but the comprehensive nature of the profit-making services KPMG offers as representative of the Big Four. It is this comprehensive nature which offers the possibility of anti-capitalist alliances against this oligopoly that is integral to the present phase of the capitalist mode of production, and which connived at the crisis which capital is using to its own benefit.

The most effective anti-capitalist actions are at the point of production and defensive struggles against new enclosures. It is those actions that are self-organised and self-empowering which are the most profound. This does not however preclude the possibility of wider alliances. It’s hardly news that sectarian comfort zones have weakened ‘anti-capitalism’ in Britain for a very long time. Partly this is because of a paralyzing fear of ‘reformism’. Measures that shift wealth and confidence away from the rich are only reformist when they define the limits of the how-and-what can be achieved.

At the present moment when, predictably, global financial regulation rhetoric is just that and nothing more, and it is capital that is profiting from its own crisis – by further oligopolisation, downward pressure on wages and further concentration of land ownership – there are still counter-opportunities which have the potential to unite disparate groups against its regime. The most immediate is that of tax avoidance and tax havens which, as I’ve argued, are not extraneous to the power of capital. Popular anger on this has been understood by governments, and on this issue they – often prompted by whistleblowers – are taking the reformist route of very partial restrictions on the activities of tax havens.

This is especially true in Britain when over half the world’s havens are in British dominions. Gordon Brown talks of “an international agreement for the exchange of information in relation to taxes.” What is required are real consequences from such information exchange, and this will only happen by outside pressure. An alliance to make this pressure will include those groups pushing both for country-by-country accounts to prevent transfer (mis)pricing, and for “automatic information exchange” with compulsion on British-controlled tax havens. As it stands, none of the Big Four are willing to support country-based reporting of profits; and the “automatic” exchange proposal is rejected on the grounds that it impinges on “privacy and confidentiality”. These are people who have many times calculated that the gains from tax avoidance outweigh any penalties from nation states which buy into the myth that the ‘free’ market is cost-free.

As the severe cuts in public spending take effect, tax avoidance will provoke more anger. What is required for this to produce more than reformism?

• Tactical picketing, as witnessed with Visteon.

• As surveillance of the incomes of the poor is increased, the question to be asked: ‘Privacy and confidentiality’ for whom?

• Being persistent in highlighting $5trn of black money functional to the capitalist mode of production in its present phase.

• Being persistent in challenging the pro-profit bias, incompetence and elitism of self-interested consultants who have infiltrated government.

• Challenging not just the free market’s claim to efficiency in the optimum use of resources by the ‘free’ market, but the sheer cost of its infrastructure; all those analysts, auditors, financial ‘advisers’, financial traders, and consultants.

• Never forgetting that the same KPMG that sponsors the City of London Academy, and talking green, is bleeding you dry with the same smiling self-righteousness.

Notes

1.   It is perhaps with the UK in mind that the ultra-neoliberals who opposed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the demands it makes on tighter financial reporting by corporations and companies themselves complained that it reduced the USA’s international competitive edge against foreign service providers, introducing an overly complex regulatory environment. This familiar argument was made by familiar names like Newt Gingrich, Michael Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal. The British version is non-statutory.
2.   The self-interest in the role it plays in the collective self-interest of capital is shown by the earnings of its partners. In 2006 the average income of some 500 plus partners was £680,000. In 2008 it had risen to £806,000. Back in 2006, its retiring head of the UK operation Mike, now Sir Michael, Rake earned £3.6 million plus a knighthood for “services to accountancy”.
3.   The Guardian 1st July 2002: The journalist Liz McGregor and KPMG advisor Caroline Keene.
4.   Though PwC is doing very well out of ‘unwinding’ Lehman Brothers. In the present Crunch-and-Squeeze, redundancies may also be a growing area of work.
5.   Those made redundant argued that KPMG had not just fired people arbitrarily, but had failed to give them the full facts about what redundancy entailed. The lifeaftertexol web site described how they were given “government statutory redundancy forms which were part pre-filled by KPMG. Most people will have filled the form in very quickly but it has only been latterly – after seeking legal advice – that we have discovered it [receiving statutory redundancy payments] conflicts with going down the unfair dismissal route. None of this was explained to us.”
6.   The Limited Liability Partnership Act of 2000 kept the perks but gave audit firm partnerships limited liability, in that the main liability was placed on the individual auditor; this, according to Accountancy Age (29/03/2001), after threats from Ernst & Young and Price Waterhouse to shift their partnerships offshore to Jersey. Prem Sikka also alleges that the architect of the policy was Stuart Bell MP who went on to become a consultant for Ernst & Young; a fairly typical case of ‘revolving doors’ within the power elite. In the 2006 Companies Act it was established that their duty is to the company as a legal person and not to any other stakeholders. It permitted auditors and directors to negotiate limits to auditor liability. Now, according to Prem Sikka, in the wake of the Crunch-and-Squeeze, they are lobbying for yet greater protection. The same steady dilution of auditor liability laws has followed a similar path in the USA, though there at least a Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) was created by the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, and has been critical of KPMG on several occasions.
7.   See paragraph 223: www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/200809/cmselect/cmtrasury/519/51909.htm
8.   Other pay-outs in the face of shareholder lawsuits were in the cases of Rite Out 2003, $125m; Lernout and Hauspie 2004, $120m. An ongoing case with Fannie Mae involves that hybrid company suing KPMG for wrong advice, and KPMG counter-suing on the grounds of being given wrong information. At the same time both are trying to blame shareholders. In October 2008, Australian regulators began legal action against KPMG for negligence over its auditing of collapsed property developer Westpoint.
9.   Accountancy Age, 23rd June 2009
10. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/may/14/bae.armstrade
11. It is on this relationship that Title II of Sarbanes-Oxley places restrictions.
12. ‘Auditors: Keeping the Public in the Dark’, Association for Accountancy and Business Affairs, 1999
13. They doubled their fees from state-financed RBS from £31.4 million to £58.8 million while signing off its 2008 accounts as a “true and fair view”.
14. Nicholas Paler, Citywire 11th February 2009
15. The Guardian 22nd December 2008
16. In this recent ‘Integrity Survey’ it has a section on how organisations respond to misconduct whistleblowing (and therefore the likelihood of whistleblowing), as if it hadn’t been called in to investigate just such misconduct in HBOS with which it had been so involved – this section reports that the lowest rates of reported misconduct were in the “highly regulated industries such as banking and finance”.
17. KPMG, ‘Global Infrastructure and Projects’.
18. John Heartfield, ‘State Capitalism in Britain’, Mute magazine 24th June 2009
19. Craif and Brooks, ‘Plundering the Public Sector’, Constable p133
20. This author will attempt to pursue this through FOI channels.
21. KPMG, ‘Global Infrastructure and Projects”
22. Jeevan Vasagar and Rob Evans, The Guardian, 1st July 2002
23. KPMG, ‘Effectiveness of Operational Contracts in PFI’, 2007
24. KPMG, ‘Public Private Partnerships’, 2009
25. David Hencke, The Guardian 4th March 2008. In which he describes HSBC setting up a shell called Anne’s Gate Property plc for £311 million for the Home Office Headquarters. When the building was ready to be occupied, 80% of the shell company’s ownership was transferred to the Guernsey-based HSBC Infrastructure Company.
26. The Observer, 12th July 2009
27. ‘Profiting from Poverty’, 2004
28. Action Aid, ‘How aid conditions continue to drive utility privatization in poor countries’
29. ‘Profiting from Poverty’, 2004, p11
30. The Hindu, issue 10, May 11th-12th 2002
31. ‘Profiting from Poverty’ 2004, p11
32. ‘How KPMG Ensures Active Participation in Cross Border CRS Programmes’
33. In three well-researched pamphlets: ‘The Morning After the Day Before’; ‘Death and Taxes, The True Toll of Tax Dodging’; ‘False Profits: Robbing the Poor to Keep the Rich Tax Free’.
34. Their importance was indicated when Alan Greenspan rationalized not regulating them by saying such regulation would drive them further underground. He did nor specify where the further undergrounds might be.
35. With Nigeria, Pakistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh the biggest losers.
36. There is also ‘legal’ avoidance as factored in by private equity buy-outs where profits are offset against the repayment of leveraged debt.
37. Prem Sikka, ‘Enterprise Culture and Accountancy Forms’, New Masters of the Universe
38. The Committee found that it used “aggressive marketing tactics to sell its generic tax products, turning tax professionals into tax product salesmen.” None of the innovative tax ‘products’ were disclosed to the IRS. Using reverse Trojan Horse tactics KPMG claimed that “many of the [KPMG] specialists are ex-IRS [US Inland Revenue Service] employees.”
39. Richard Murphy of TJN has described a standard way in which this is done. To get a series of artificial steps past the HMRC and the courts, the argument is that tax avoidance is not the purpose of convoluted arrangements, but is rather for pressing commercial reasons and that any tax benefit is simply a welcome incidental effect.
40. Montagnon is the head of investment for the Association of British Insurers which controls 20% of shares on the British Stock Exchange. Significantly, his complaint was made in August 2006 before the Crunch.
41. The Guardian, 17th December 2004
42. www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/200809/cmselect/cmtreaury/519/51909.ht
43. This was raised by the Pensions Investment Research Company.
44. An attack on the predominance of the Big Four as a “dangerous time bomb” by Alexander Shaub (Director General of internal markets at the EC) to another self-interested grouping, the European Federation of Chartered Accountants four years ago, was rejected on the grounds that “it could discourage auditors from developing genuine expert knowledge of a company’s affairs.” Here they’ve upped the ante, it’s not just expert knowledge they alone have but genuine expert knowledge.
45. Others include Sir Michael Rakes, chairman of KPMG until 2007; Ian Mackintosh, another Coopers & Lybrand-man, as chair of the Accountancy Standards Board; and Eric Anstie, former partner at Ernst & Young.
46. Peter Montagnan, another pension fund representative had, in pre-Crunch 2006, raised the matter of regulatory non-independence and was told that though there might be a conflict of interest in this, more independent regulation could leave it looking “out of touch”.
47. CFO.com 29th November 2007
48. http://www.cseurope.org/csolutions.php?action=show_solution&solution_id=529
49. It is especially keen to boast of its ‘International Green Initiative’ which aims to reduce its own carbon footprint, based on its recycling of old technology equipment. On the strength of its Montvale (New Jersey) campus it was added to a list of Top Green-IT organizations by Computerworld.
50. See, Y. Schreuder: ‘The Corporate Greenhouse’, Zed Books pps 169-71
51. KPMG, ‘Your Business Ready for the Low carbon Economy?’
52. KPMG, ‘Global Sustainability Services’

 

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The Space Merchants
Escaping the Iron Cage of Rationality by Rocket to Venus

Bryan Fanning

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth was first published in 1953.1 I read it around the same time as I first encountered George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World. I had been schooled to regard both Orwell and Huxley as literature. That The Space Merchants was pulp fiction seemed clear. I read a lot of science fiction in my teenage wasteland years. Books read at fifteen are never quite the same when revisited decades later. I must have revisited Orwell and Huxley a dozen times but not The Space Merchants. Its scenario now seems hackneyed but prescient. Its power to shock has been eroded by the global neo-liberalism that it anticipated as by the widespread exposure of the marketing techniques of cigarette and fast food conglomerates that are central to its plot. The blurb on my 1960 Digit paperback is succinct: “An overcrowded world is dominated by giant corporations, who struggle violently with each other. Mitch Courtenay, a Madison Avenue copywriter, has been given the job of selling the idea of emigration to Venus. He has rivals. Conflicts develop”. I quickly forgot the name of Pohl and Kornbluth’s protagonist. Yet the contours of their dystopia and Mitch Courtenay’s trials and tribulations stayed with me and remained, in their own way, as compelling as those in Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World.

Pohl and Kornbluth, like Orwell and Huxley, wrote about individual autonomy beleaguered by totalitarian mass cultures. All were connoisseurs of contemporary anxieties about modernity. There were, it must be said, many distinct anxieties to choose from and hence differences between their respective fictional dystopias. In particular, The Space Merchants shared some themes with the work of Herbert Marcuse and other Frankfurt School émigrés to the United States who viewed technology and the industrial society primarily as instruments of domination and social control.2 Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, argued that the inner autonomy of the individual had been whittled down by technology: “Mass production and mass distribution”, he wrote, “claim the entire individual, and industrial psychology has long since ceased to be confined to the factory.”3 Somewhat similarly, Theodor Adorno maintained that erosion of individual autonomy under fascism was being replicated by individual surrender to the repetitive formulae of mass culture.4 This was determinist stuff and The Space Merchants was similarly pessimistic on the question of future individual autonomy.

Near the end of his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the sociologist Max Weber struggled to explain his theories about how the systems of modernity could encroach upon human lives. The image he came up with, or, more precisely the one used by his translator Talcott Parsons, was that of “the iron cage of rationality”. Weber described the inmates of this “iron cage” as specialists without spirit.5 To illustrate his argument better than he could do so himself, he referred his readers to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich just as many writers about twentieth century modernity have done so using Orwell or Huxley.6 Sometimes social theorists must cede to fiction, and to science fiction, to explain their preoccupations.

Mitch Courtenay is something of a pulp Ivan Illyich. In the words of his wife, he is contriving and Machiavellian; he pretty much introduces himself as such in the opening sentence of the book: “As I dressed that morning I ran over in my mind the long list of statistics, evasions, and exaggerations that they would expect in my report.” He is a careerist, conformist star-class copysmith for Fowler Schocken Associates whose accounts include India (all of it) and Starrzelius products. Their rival Taunton Associates holds the Universal account. Their common enemies are the Consies, wild eyed conservationist zealots who pretend that modern civilisation is some way plundering the planet. Nonsense, Mitch assures us in first person narrator mode, science is always a step ahead of the failure of natural resources. After all when red meat got scarce it provided soya-burgers. When the oil ran out it came up with the pedecab. Science, he explains, would not have come up with ascorbic acid if ‘Nature’ had intended humans to eat fresh vegetables. Pohl and Kornbluth allow their readers to see through Mitch’s glibness at the Fowler Schocken briefing that kicks off the plot:

“Ben Winston stood up and baritoned: ‘Speaking for Industrial Anthropology, no! Listen to today’s progress report – You’ll get it in the noon bulletin, but let me brief you now: according to the midnight indices, all primary schools east of the Mississippi are now using our packaging recommendation for the school lunch program. Soyaburgers and regenerated steak’ - there wasn’t a man around the table who didn’t shudder at the thought of soyaburgers and regenerated steak – ‘are packaged in containers the same shade as Universal products. But the candy, ice-cream, and Kiddiebut cigarette rations are wrapped in colourful Starrzelius red’.”

Mitch gets promoted but is rejected by his doctor wife Kathy who we later find out is a Consie. He takes over the Venus contract, the job making palatable the nightmare of colonising Venus, a world of 500mph winds and liquid formaldehyde, “embalming fluid” as put by Jack O’Shea, a “midget”, and the only astronaut they could send there and bring back alive. Mitch brags to Jack about the prowess of star-class copysmiths. He points out that O’Shea wears Starrzelius Verily clothes and shoes and uses Starrzelius Verily luggage. “It means we got you.” O’Shea threatens to switch to Universal products. “I wouldn’t dream of stopping you”, Mitch retorts smugly:

“It means more business for Starrzelius. Tell you what you’re going to do: you’ll get your complete set of Universal luggage and apparel. You’ll use the luggage and wear the apparel for a while with a vague, submerged discontent. It’s going to work on your libido, because our ads for Starrzelius - even though you say you don’t read them - have convinced you that it isn’t quite virile to trade with any other firm. Your self-esteem will suffer; deep down you’ll know that you’re not wearing the best. Your subconscious won’t stand up under much of that. You’ll find yourself ‘losing’ bits of universal apparel. You’ll find yourself ‘accidentally’ putting your foot through the cuff of your universal pants. You’ll find yourself overpacking the Universal luggage and damning it for not being roomier. You’ll walk into stores and in a fit of momentary amnesia regarding this conversation you’ll buy Starrzelius. Bless you.”

Mitch takes a business rocket trip to Antarctica. He is mysteriously knocked out and wakes up on the labour freighter Thomas R. Malthus robbed of his star-class identity. He has somehow become a lowly consumer indentured to the Chlorella Corporation. No sooner has he has landed at the Chlorella plant in Costa Rica than he finds himself signing chits against his first pay check. He must pay bribes not to be assigned a bunk twenty-six floors bellow his workstation without access to an elevator. He must pay extra for a safe bed (“They’d like a nice young man in Dorm Twelve. My, yes! But you could carry a knife or something”). He is welcomed to the ranks of the United Slime-Mould Protein Workers of Panamerica, Unaffiliated, Chlorella Costa Rica Local. Cue further extortion.

The pattern of exploitation quickly becomes clear. “You never got out of debt. Easy credit was part of the system, and so were the irritants that forced you to exercise it.” Workers ended their contracts in debt and had to sign a contract renewal. The food at Chlorella didn’t help. Mitch comes off shift dehydrated, buys squirts of Popsie from the fountain and Crunchies from the canteen on easy credit. The Crunchies kick off withdrawal symptoms that can only be quelled by another two squirts of Popsie. And Popsie kicks off cravings that can only be quelled by smoking Starr cigarettes, which make him hungry again for Crunchies. I was becoming, Mitch thinks, “the kind of consumer we used to love. Think about smoking, think about Starrs, light a Starr. Light a Starr, think about Popsie, get a squirt. Get a squirt, think about Crunchies, buy a box. Buy a box, think about smoking, light a Starr.” Yet Mitch remains a loyal consumerist. He is as preoccupied with the Venus project as with his own immediate predicament. He ruefully studies the declining effect of the Fowler Schocken ads on his fellow consumers. It becomes clear that his copy-smith rival Matt Runstead is messing up. The word “Venus” drifts out of the advert induced small talk. The new reference points amongst consumers for the Venus space rocket are ‘radiation poisoning’, ‘taxes’ and ‘sacrifice.’

Mitch is down but not out. Social Darwinism is, after all, his stock in trade. He studies the local power structure and befriends Herrera, the labour aristocrat of Dorm Twelve. Herrera, after ten years, has worked his way up to Master Slicer. He toils in an underground concrete vault harvesting Chicken Little, a mutated lump of heart tissue some fifteen yards wide that has been growing for decades. Herrera, it turns out, is a Consie who seeks to recruit Mitch. For Mitch, the World Conservationist Association literature Herrera gives him is wild distortion but worse than that, the dullest piece of copywriting he has ever seen. He thinks about selling out Herrera but recalls that denouncers of Consies were brain-burned on the sensible grounds that they had been contaminated.

So he offers his services as propagandist. Start a rumour, he suggests, that they’ve found a way of making cheap new protein taste like roast beef. Suggest that it will be launched in three days. Then when the three days are up and no announcement appears plant wisecracks like ‘what is the difference between roast beef and Chicken Little?’ Answer: ‘A hundred and fifty years of progress’. Three days, Mitch knew, was the optimum priming period for a closed social circuit to be triggered with a catalytic cue-phrase. As he anticipated after three days there was bubbling discontentment in the mess hall with consumers saying things like; ‘I wish I was born a hundred years ago’.

Mitch’s cell members are elated. They organise his promotion and he rotates to New York. Once there he plots his corporate comeback still none the wiser about why he was abducted to Costa Rica in the first place. His efforts to make contact with Fowler Schocken fail. He is briefly captured and tortured by Taunton Associates and framed for murder. With the help of his former secretary he books passage to the Moon on the spaceship David Ricardo in a further effort to get a personal audience with Schocken. On the Moon he meets his ‘bereaved’ Kathy who is vacationing with Jack O’Shea. Kathy admits that she is a kingpin Consie. She had had him put on ice in Costa Rica to give him a taste of consumer life whilst Runstead, revealed also as a Consie, manipulated the Venus project. Subsequently, Kathy goes underground. Mitch hits the corporate comeback trail, rebuilds his relationship with Schocken and emerges in charge of the firm after Schocken is murdered by Taunton. He becomes obsessed with finding Kathy. He tracks her down and they reconcile when it becomes clear to her that Mitch has now renounced everything he has stood for. He agrees to Kathy’s plan for a rigged Fowler Schocken lottery to pick Consies as Venus colonists. It emerges that the Consies believe that the human race needs Venus. Mitch and Kathy escape with the colonists to a new life.

The Space Merchants is at face value a tale of two dystopias. The first is a rancid Social Darwinist capitalism now common enough in science fiction. Examples include subsequent Pohl novels such as Gateway (1976), and Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson. The second is Venus, a cynically advertised prospective gulag with hermetically sealed cabins:

“On the screen the picture dissolved to a specious suburban roomette in early morning. On the screen the husband folding the bed into the wall… Over the breakfast juices and the children’s pabulum (with a steaming mug of Coffiest for each, of course) they spoke persuasively to each other about how wise and brave they had been to apply for passage in the Venus rocket. And the closing question of their youngest babbler (‘Mommy, when I grow up kin I take my littul boys and girls to a place as nice as Venus?’) cued the switch to a highly imaginative series of shots of Venus as it would be when the child grew up – verdant valleys, crystal lakes, brilliant mountain vistas.”

At first glance, Mitch and Kathy’s escape – the novel ends with a romantic clinch on the Venus rocket – rings false. The sentimental ending lacks the knowing counterpoints to Mitch’s self-delusion that punctuate most of the story. The real space merchants are the Consies. They have manipulated the selling of Venus for their own purposes. Mitch buys in for the sake of love but also, it is implied, because of the repugnance he now feels for his former life. His conversion, if that is what it is, has a clear rationale even if it is somewhat fudged by Pohl and Kornbluth. It is apparent that life on Venus will be harsh for decades, harsher than life on earth. The Consies are not environmentalists. They would, after all, abandon Earth. Rather they are ascetic rebels against an otherwise inescapable consumerist modernity. Pohl and Kornbluth’s protagonists would flee the blandishments of the world on a rocket. However, even science fiction characters bring their problems with them. The reader would not be on safe ground, given the determinism of The Space Merchants, that, whatever else transpired, children on Venus could avoid Coffiest with their breakfasts.

Yet, Pohl and Kornbluth’s rebels are ascetic ones in the tradition of the Puritan protagonists of Weber’s Protestant Ethic. They willingly forsake the relative comforts of earthly existence for what, it must be presumed, will be a harsh but independent future. Weber, when positing the iron cage of rationality, contrasted the Puritan ascetic with the modern materialist who was trapped by the strictures of rational systems. What the Puritans had going for themselves, in Weber’s view at least, were the inner spiritual resources to cast aside the cloak of materialism. Marcuse’s metaphor of a one-dimensional existence described a rationalised world where such resistance was improbable. More so than Weber he emphasised the centrality of language to this modernity’s systems of domination. Language and the mass media were central to the Pohl and Kornbluth’s system of domination. Resistance was not so much futile as difficult to conceive. George Orwell’s equivalent to Mitch Courtenay, Winston Smith, works for a totalitarian Ministry of Truth rather than on Madison Avenue, altering history and destroying words that might express dissent rather than manipulating them to sell products.7 Yet, Winston Smith is, from the outset, a dissident from the official reality he is a propagandist for. Mitch Courtenay speaks knowingly about consumer manipulation but remains one-dimensionally beguiled by the web he works to spin. The system of domination portrayed by Orwell resembles somewhat the mechanics of domination described by Marcuse. However, crucially, their understandings of free will and human agency differed. In The Space Merchants a one-dimensional existence can only be resisted, if at all, by literally exiting the world and forsaking all earthly goods.

Notes
1.   Frederik Pohl and C.M Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (New York: Ballantine, 1953)
2.   Douglas Kellner, Introduction to Herbert Marcuse, Technology, War and Fascism: Collected Papers Volume One (London: Routledge), p.5
3.   Hertbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, (London, Abacus, 1964)¸ p.23
4.   Theodor Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture (London: Routledge, 1994)
5.   Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York, Scribner’s Press, 1958), p.182
6.   Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illyich and Other Stories, translated by Rosemary Edmonds (London: Penguin, 1960), pp.99-163
7.   The job of newspeak, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s language of total administration, was to destroy words capable of expressing unorthodox thought. Newspeak’s vocabulary was constructed so as to give exact and often subtle expression to Party orthodoxy while excluding the possibility of arriving at all other meanings. Part of this involved the generation of specific words. Another part involved stripping words of unorthodox meanings. A dog could be free from lice or a field free from weeds but in newspeak the word free could not apply to thought because political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Secker and Warburg, 1949).

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The Ill-Health of the State
Tom Jennings

That “war is the health of the State” has proved an enduring motif in critiques of Western government policy. It was originally proposed by Randolph Bourne, an editor at the progressive New Republic journal, in the 1918 essay ‘The State’ [1] in response to the acrimonious split among American intellectuals over US involvement in World War I – especially to erstwhile liberals such as his former Columbia University mentor, the educationalist John Dewey, whose justification argued that military intervention could foster democracy abroad. Carefully distinguishing between the institutions and mechanisms of the State and the circumscribed powers of elected representatives, Bourne contrasted the methods, measures and rationalisations employed by particular administrations with the relatively secret and unaccountable actions of the executive in deploying the State’s monopoly over legitimate coercion; in gathering intelligence about and conducting diplomacy with foreign actors and embarking on and running wars.

Addressing the apparent success of patriotic fervour in mobilising active support for war and silencing dissent, Bourne’s analysis shows how otherwise routine distinctions made in people’s lives between State and government, nation, society and community blur or even disappear in wartime. This allows the country’s resources to be smoothly channelled in the service of the military campaign by a population largely conforming to unite in the common effort. This situation is almost unthinkable in peacetime, with so many conflicting private and sectional agendas, interests and struggles being served, when the sanctification of the State is restricted to relatively archaic rituals and festivities. Thus Bourne saw the conditions of being at war as the ‘State-ideal’; an expression of the group in its aggressive, competitive form. Claims to the pursuit of democracy, justice or any other positive good were just window-dressing in the panoply of propaganda, to be flouted in practice with impunity irrespective of the party-political complexion of particular regimes.

These insights resonate throughout twentieth-century history, extending older philosophies of power such as those of Hobbes, Machiavelli or Von Clausewitz into modern problematics of the acquiescence of the governed to decisions made supposedly on their behalf. Despite their historical specificity and fatal flaws in his then fashionable treatment of collective behaviour as reflecting ‘herd instincts’, with political agency restricted to upper-middle-class intellectuals and economics understood as external to politics, Bourne’s ideas have influenced generations of dissidents facing condescensions of nationalism and moral superiority in times of international crisis. From World War II-era pacifism to the Cold War, and the Vietnam debacle to contemporary global Wars on Drugs or Terror, governments claim noble motives in justifying and organising themselves with military metaphors and modus operandi, so that ‘war is the health of the State’ seems as apposite now as ever [2]. Mainstream current affairs coverage, meanwhile, still generally accepts at face value the protestations of power, taking seriously only minor policy differences among the ‘loyal opposition’. Fictional representations, however, have more latitude – even in the mass media – and this survey of cinema and television narratives related to the Iraq War assesses their performance in communicating and negotiating the present health of the State in operations at home and abroad.

Internal Examinations

The March 2003 invasion of Iraq was preceded by massive mobilisations in opposition, including the largest demonstrations in history on February 15th with many millions on the streets across the world. But while Parliament and press focused on legalistic quibbling over United Nations resolutions, the US and UK governments pressed ahead with military force despite limited domestic enthusiasm and anti-war campaigns with unprecedented support among all sections of society. With existing news reportage conventions unsuited to exploring an apparently irreconcilable gulf between affairs of State and the popular will, new strategies in documentary film-making stepped up instead. Building on traditional techniques of narrative structuring and editing to organise material into approximations of ‘real life’, these were often pioneered by politically-motivated practitioners frustrated with normal formats, engaging viewers with variously explicit and eclectic artifice. After the 2004 commercial success of Fahrenheit 9/11’s demolition of George W. Bush and the obvious tragedy of Iraq [3], most of the films considered here thus base themselves – however loosely – on creative reconstructions of recorded events, characters and situations.

The first high-profile UK dramatisation of circumstances surrounding Iraq was Peter Kosminsky’s The Government Inspector [4],  which limited itself to imagining the personal background, dilemmas and attitudes of weapons-inspector Dr David Kelly and otherwise adhered to the Hutton Report findings into his suicide amid the scandal over dodgy data concerning Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. So although the possibilities of ‘docudrama’ aleady seem somewhat stale in this rather pedestrian sentimental effort, with a cast of caricatures borrowed from political satirists elsewhere, it does capture the duplicity, incompetence and arrogance at higher levels of the government, civil service and media – spoiling their eagerness to draw lines in the sand and reinforcing suspicions that executive decision-making mechanisms are rotten to the core. This impression is enjoyably bolstered by Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop (2009) – a riotous farce of hapless aides and media liaison officers transmitting conflicting messages between spin-dictators and politician pawns in both Whitehall and Washington – whose primary genius translates the banality of modern managerialism earlier nailed by The Office [5]. Both films, however, readily assimilate to attacks on Blair and New Labour [6], excusing the State as well as remaining safely remote from ordinary folk.

Not so The Road to Guantanamo. Co-directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross [7], this quasi-documentary speaks for itself as the testimony of the ‘Tipton Three’ – a bunch of Brummie scallies who travelled to Pakistan in 2001 for Asif Iqbal’s wedding. After taking an ill-judged detour to Afghanistan, they lost one of their number (Munir Ali, presumed dead) as the war there intensified, and were hoovered up for three years of abuse, humiliation and torture as ‘enemy combatants’ by the US-funded Northern Alliance and subsequently in Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before release without charge in 2004. Dubbed by Dubya as among “the worst of the worst” of global terrorists, the Three come over as completely apolitical, scarcely religious, even clueless fools (to start with), who emerged stronger and wiser thanks to steadfast friendship and the inspirational integrity of fellow Muslim prisoners.

As in other Winterbottom films the visual design, cinematography and editing mesh seamlessly in narrating the characters’ point of view. The juxtaposition of contemporaneous news footage with to-camera commentary by the Three and staged reconstructions of their experiences effectively demonstrates the arrogance, stupidity and dishonesty of the ‘War on Terror’, as well as highlighting the media poodles’ parroting of government propaganda. So despite videotape ‘evidence’ purporting to show them training with Osama bin Laden in 2000, Shafiq Rasul was working in Currys in Birmingham all that year and Rhuhel Ahmed also had cast-iron alibis. Lawyers privy to the evidence against them confirm that the ‘intelligence’ agencies had nothing to dent their story – as with hundreds of other anonymous detainees eventually released from Guantanamo with no media attention.

British nationality led Jack Straw to request the release of these likely lads from the global gulag. Ironically, ‘Britishness’ may have contributed to their ordeal, in the form of that particular postcolonial complacency about blundering into other people’s misery (whether for solidarity, charity and/or mundane tourism). Family links with the Subcontinent obviously occasioned this journey, but the narrative tone is equally suggestive of stereotypical Brits abroad – and once the intense anxiety in Karachi for the Afghan people aroused their sympathy, macho overconfidence prompted the pointless jaunt even further out of their depth into the war zone. But in the present intensifying politicisation of space, the wrong body in the wrong place is presumed guilty. At home or abroad, the new world order hysterically redefines the transgression of borders (more generally, failing to fit official requirements) as criminal. And making waves in media space is suspect too – returning from the Berlin Film Festival, Rasul and Ahmed, along with the actors playing them, were detained at Luton Airport and questioned about their politics.

Rendition, directed by Gavin Hood (2007), recounts a broadly similar tale – innocent citizen caught in the tentacles of out-of-control State – but this time with everything but the bare bones of the true story source invented to shoehorn in sentimental family melodrama. Here a naturalised US scientist is spirited away for torture in Egypt because of a hawkish intelligence chief’s contempt for human rights. His desperate, heavily-pregnant wife quickly exhausts official brick-walls trying to discover what’s happened to him, but fortunately the CIA flunkey hastily drafted to ‘assist’ interrogation not only suffers pangs of conscience, but personally arranges safe passage home. So, although along the way the false confessions elicited indicate the self-defeating nature of these brutal methods, the question of their potential effectiveness with the guilty is comprehensively ducked by over-egging the victim’s squeaky-clean, loving-father-and-husband, all-American middle-class respectability – if not the neocon’s carboard-cutout character [8].

Andrew Gaghan’s conspiracy thriller Syriana (2005) also highlights a disillusioned Middle-East theatre spook, sick and tired of bungling controllers and corrupt careerist agendas. Parallel satellite narratives then fatefully converge, contrasting a naïve young diplomat drawn into Stateside branches of the same corporate, political, bureaucratic and Arab-government intrigues with a pathetic, patronising balancing-act of Pakistani guest-workers seduced into jihad by a sinister Saudi aristocrat [9]. An equally interesting attempt to interweave full-spectrum perspectives – above-ground, in public chattering-class opinion – is Robert Redford’s Lions For Lambs (2007) ensemble of respectable smugness, as a high-liberal academic, bitterly cynical journalist and reptilian war-cabinet Republican lock horns over the ethical, philosophical and political high-ground in the War on Terror. To his chagrin, the professor’s students either shun politics or idealistically enlist to play decent active roles in Afghanistan – but the latter perish due to the stupidity of the senator’s pet strategy. The film’s awkward strength implies that mainstream views don’t compute, mirroring each other’s deficiencies but not transcending resulting impasses – echoing Randolph Bourne’s lack of economic and class analysis in privileging individualist rationalism. But whatever the material or moral determinants of flawed aims, tactics and practices, the catastrophic consequences for those carrying out the dirty work of war overseas do come clearly into focus.

Signs and Symptoms

If lingering post-WWII hangovers concerning the inhuman insanities and human frailties of war were recuperated in mildly farcical televisual nostalgia like Sergeant Bilko and Dad’s Army, the existential chaos, venality, culpable atrocity and horror attending misbegotten military adventures were brought decisively home in 1970 in Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, set among the USAF in Italy, and Robert Altman’s MASH, based on surgeon Richard Hooker’s stories about army medics in Korea and spawning the most successful TV series of all time. When Hollywood belatedly joined the Vietnam conflict, a generation of countercultural alumni temporarily institutionalised war-is-hell/SNAFU (‘situation normal, all fucked-up’) principles in vivid, hysterically overblown blockbuster laments whose 1980s innovations drowned out the gung-ho triumphalism of The Green Berets (John Wayne, 1968) and Rambo (George Pan Cosmatos, 1985). Overall, failure to faithfully reflect the party-line convinced US rulers to strictly discipline the future mediation of foreign meddling [10].

Despite their notable paucity, cinema treatments of the 1991 Gulf War [11] continued to focus on the traumatisation inherent to the logic of armed conflict conducted by the State’s war machine and inevitably visited upon enemy populations and ‘our boys’ alike. Twelve years on, though very different and dissonant in tone and technique, the same can be said for Iraq – where the forensic film cataloguing of mistakes, misdemeanours and mayhem borrows extensively from real events at least minimally publicised elsewhere. The provenance from Vietnam is clearest in Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2008), which replays the problematics of a sexualised murder spree by the vengeful American thugs of his Casualties of War (1989) [12] – complete with subsequent suffering consciences and bathetic redemption. Ironically, the director’s omnipotent portentousness shortcircuits the new version’s motif of cover-up and censorship wrecked by the plenitude of alternative contemporary means of communication – all meticulously faked in the film – particularly those employed by the perpetrators (video diaries, webcasts, cameraphones) as well as CCTV, Al-Jazeera bulletins, jihadist propaganda, and mainstream reportage and documentaries inadvertently eluding official editing/nobbling.

Battle For Haditha (Nick Broomfield, 2007) tackles a comparably disgusting incident in a far more careful, thoughtful manner. Exceptionally, it pays more than lip-service to both civilian and insurgent local perspectives [13]. Its emotionally-cauterised Marines massacring the eponymous town’s inhabitants, after a roadside bomb attack, demonstrate zero knowledge, understanding or interest in Iraqis – mirroring their commanders’ diffidence, lazy ‘intelligence’ and arbitrarily overzealous responses to nebulously defined ‘threats’. The foreign Al Qaeda operatives are equally callously indifferent to the interests of a host community which Broomfield represents with considerable sympathetic texture as they are abandoned by all authority, including their indigenous own, to the random madness resulting from hardcore military training, self-seeking ranks, and utterly mendacious rules of engagement. Meanwhile Army PR damage-limitation hastens to decorate the chief culprits ahead of a wounded child’s video of the heinous acts seeping into the public domain, whereupon they’re instead readied for scapegoating.

Two further significant examples, based on verité accounts by ‘embedded’ correspondents, stress everyday routine in the conflict rather than blatant cock-ups. Yet, via substantially different approaches, both succeed in questioning its rhyme and reason. In doing so they give the military management handlers who arranged their assignments rather more than the flag-waving morale-boosterism they bargained for. So Kathryn Bigelow’s viscerally scintillating The Hurt Locker (2008) subtly stylises the dire personal and interpersonal corollaries even of a wartime task which seems most humanistic – and her Improvised Exposive Device-disposal squad are at once ordinary and heroic. But their necessary recklessness endangering everyone in the vicinity yields an alienated incapacity to appreciate any other kind of social project, and a hankering for intensity of experience that can only be interpreted as death-wish – practically guaranteeing that the heights of their specialist training, as well as its failures, produces monsters liable to explode at any moment [14].

David Simon and Ed Burns’ miniseries Generation Kill (2008) achieves equivalent depths of emotional realism following elite First Recon Marines up the Euphrates to Baghdad, doing justice to the almost insurmountable difficulties of doing their duty well. However, while capturing how esprit de corps negotiates the claustophobic conditions, the richly convincing warts-and-all ensemble characterisations bear out the platoon’s understanding of both the self-obsessed incompetence of many officers and the impossibly wrongheaded orders. The dawning awareness of the duplicitious overall situation and their collusion, patchily takes to heart managerial bullshit about regard for Iraqi civilians. Whereas, contemptuously arbitrary airstrikes leave no doubt about the real agenda, simultaneously reanimating xenophobic amnesia of their own issues. But trying to do the right thing invariably causes trouble, just as proclaimed liberation inexorably achieves its deathly opposite while its bearers wish-fulfillingly celebrate the professionalism which their superiors casually and capriciously waste. But this cannot possibly offer meaningful solutions to the world’s problems in such stupidly opaque instrumental and institutional contexts – begging the question of the wider significance for all concerned of the misfortunes and maliciousnesses in evidence [15].

Interlude: Standard Operating Procedures

Thousands of fleeing civilians, and similar numbers rounded up on extremely tenuous suspicion of involvement in the growing insurgency, cower at the latter’s 2003 epicentre in Abu Ghraib prison. Located between Baghdad and Fallujah, it is under constant mortar attack and with guards outnumbered hundreds to one. Ranking Guantanamo veterans and military, CIA and privately-contracted interrogators parachute in to extract information by any means, backed by the Commander-in-Chief and his White House cronies with policies trashing the Geneva Convention. A contingent of young army grunts fresh to this hellhole witness the routine humiliation, torture and murder of detainees. Some complain, but are told it’s their professional and moral duty as warriors for liberty, and with varying degrees of diligence and enthusiasm comply with orders to ‘soften up’ prisoners by using ‘standard operating procedures’ devised by superiors. Still partially disbelieving, many shoot cameraphone stills and videos of the planned and sanctioned insanity. Many of these ‘leak’ into the public domain via the internet, resulting in a scandal saturating the world’s media which director Errol Morris proceeds to dissect in his latest cinema documentary.

Standard Operating Procedure centres around spoken testimony from five of the seven low-ranking ‘bad apples’ vilified by subsequent inquiries. Sergeant Charles Graner and Ivan Frederick – ringleaders choreographing the sexualised humiliation rituals – were still in jail, but Javal Davis, Sabrina Harman (notoriously smiling thumbs-up over a dead ‘ghost’ detainee unlisted in prison records [16]), Lynndie England (with hooded prisoner on leash), Megan Ambuhl (now married to Graner; supervising with Harman and England the ‘human pyramid’ of naked Iraqis) and Roman Krol feature, with several other former military police and their Brigadier-General Janis Karpinski (now demoted to colonel) and the Criminal Investigation Division’s Brent Pack (who assisted the prosecutors) [17]. The interviews and the gigantised iconic snapshots and video clips (some never seen before in mainstream media) are supplemented by staged ‘illustrations’ of the events described, with ominously-lit widescreen cinematography and melodramatic score reconfiguring Abu Ghraib’s bedlam as sinister gothic otherworld.

The film’s rendering of human beings in an inhuman situation, rather than emblems of evildoing, erodes stereotypes of underclass psychopaths relishing malevolence; despite rationalisations of unconscionable cruelty characterised by ambivalence, alienation and disgust at themselves, colleagues, and military and government hierarchies as well as towards purported enemies. Facing uncertain prospects for physical and career survival, the pathetic patriotic training-camp pep-talk of ‘noble causes’ couldn’t completely erase their intelligence and sensitivity, or fully underwrite the twisted sadism required of them. And certainly neither could it equip them to comprehend their later demonisation without hefty doses of the bitter fatalistic cynicism and resentful detachment radiating from them now. So letters home from Sabrina Harman to her partner support her assertion that, whereas she saw no option but to follow orders, the photographs were intended as proof of what occurred. Naturally she didn’t imagine them scuppering an otherwise successful cover-up orchestrated by her top-brass – explicitly commanding all relevant visual evidence destroyed once the shit hit the fan – or that she would end up in the dock when those who actually tortured, maimed and killed detainees were never even considered targets of justice. In that sense, then, the whitewash worked.

Thus far Standard Operating Procedure may have sufficed as your bog-standard crusading investigator exposing the stitch-up of relatively defenceless underlings as primary villains of the piece – their bosses all the way to the top wriggling and squirming behind pseudo-legalistic sophistry while pinning medals on each other. But ex-private eye Morris always digs deeper to deconstruct the framing of images (as well as of people) and their deployment in media and informational management to advance institutional interests – The Thin Blue Line (1988) famously saving the life of a prisoner on Death Row, and the Oscar-winning The Fog Of War (2003) laying bare the delusional arrogance of the powerful in the person of Robert McNamara (one of the US government architects of the Vietnam War). Here the material leads in many fascinating directions – most only hinted at, such as the much-vaunted prominence of women in the US armed forces unraveling into archetypal virgins (e.g. Jessica Lynch subjected to faked ‘rescue’ by US Special Forces), witches (Karpinski as ‘bad mother’) and whores (Harman et al fucking with Iraqi men’s heads); yet all, of course, puppet-mastered by patriarchs large and/or small-minded.

Morris emphasises that ‘The Photographs Actually Hide Things From Us’ [18] and a rare achievement of his film is showing this awareness emerging organically among the MP patsies, irrespective of philosophical ruminations on virtual hyperreality and spectacle [19]. To Ambuhl, “The pictures only show you a fraction of a second. You don’t see forward, you don’t see behind, you don’t see outside the frame”; Harman concludes:,“The military is nothing but lies. I took these photos to show what the military’s really really like”; and England shrugs, “It’s drama, it’s life” – cementing the theme of fictionalisation at all levels. The questioning thus extends beyond why these particular images arose, survived and proliferated, to not only their editing and incorporation into discourses concerning the war but, crucially, what focusing on them as the ‘truth’ of the matter therefore facilitated being excluded from consideration. More conventionally worthy efforts sometimes illuminate such complexity [20]. But the visceral impact of Standard Operating Procedure undermines any simplistic or transparent relationship between information and scientific ‘reality’, exposing the manner of its manipulation in wider structures of contemporary power. In addition to its revealing ‘worm’s eye view’ of the Abu Ghraib scandal, then, the film’s telling tales of torture also operate as a more general fable of contemporary governance [21].

Diagnostic Confusions

If the warriors can never really win – being damned for acts solicited and cultivated by others and condemned for either the inability to stomach them or the psychopathy to benefit – depictions of the social fallout trump the acrimony among former buddies forced asunder by implacable institutional clout. Tony Marchant’s The Mark of Cain (Channel 4, May 2007) shows British soldiers encouraged to abuse Iraqi detainees despite it representing betrayal of the uniform according to pep-talk rhetoric. Troubled ambivalence among the boys and uncomprehending folks back home culminates in ‘happy-slapping’ cameraphone mementos spitefully leaked to authorities only concerned to insulate hierarchies and careers. Tracking the contortions of disloyalty and whitewash, the film effectively renders the impossibility of ethical conduct when public discourse is so corrupt – with the lesser-guilty chewed up in grinding gears of injustice and the greater- only redeemed by honourable masochistic purgatory [22].

In The Valley Of Elah (directed by Paul Haggis, 2007) also hinges on cellphone torture photos shattering respectable complacency, as a former military policeman sleuths his hitherto upstanding AWOL son – dubbed ‘Doc’ by colleagues thanks to his over-enthuasiastic interrogations. Official denials and jurisdictional disavowals accumulate, but it transpires that existential cracks opened during the soldiers’ Iraq experience were scarcely papered-over. Repressed horrors immediately returned with a vengeance in the platoon’s Georgia strip club touchdown, and an escalating barfight ended with them dumping Doc’s multiply-stabbed corpse disguised by burning and dismembering. The broader resonance from a satisfyingly interwoven mess of metaphors of conventionality’s underbellies is, however, undermined by superfluous anchoring to a single theme [23] as the shell-shocked father finally fixes his star-spangled banner upside-down. Such blunders afflict Grace Is Gone (2007) too, whose staid sales clerk goes to bizarre lengths to avoid telling their kids his army wife has died in Iraq – fatally fudging the issue with unbelievably crass stereotypes of social conservatives and blue-collar countercultural conspiracy-theorising slackers alike [24].

Maybe the postmodern fragmentation of society justifies such solipsistic attempts to come to terms with and assimilate the extreme emotional and cognitive dissonances arising from the violence of Iraq. Harder to come by are portrayals of traumatised soldiers actually striving to improve their conditions materially afterwards, rather than merely agonising over emotional or secular redemption. The latter, for example,  dominated an interesting strand of Jimmy McGovern’s Mancunian Naked City portmanteau, The Street (BBC, 2009), in which a damaged and disfigured Helmand returnee receives unconvincingly unanimous unshakeable devotion from his nearest-and-dearest. A notable exception to the ‘coming-to-terms’ trend, however, is Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss (2008), whose Texan vet goes AWOL after receiving an involuntary extension to his service contract (the title’s meaning). Subsequent relations with variously physically and psychically injured colleagues are suitably pugnaciously poignant but, here too, friends and family – as well as sundry official and unofficial functionaries encountered during the plot’s convolutions – are too conveniently supine, easily convinced or readily assembled in his cause. And again, anything more than skin-deep collective solidarity among the soldierly suffering themselves remains off-radar [25].

A final fictional case study takes a longer view, somewhat alleviating the preference for moral over pragmatic dilemmas preoccupying survivors and thus facilitating displacement of psychic suppression into repetition compulsion and dysfunction. The three-part Occupation (2009) was the BBC’s first dramatic foray into Iraq [26], following an army trio who witness incompetent Basra collateral damage then fuelling sectarian breakdown, leaving them scarred misfits at home. Returning as private contractors to rebuild infrastructure, they are superficially motivated by greed, love and idealism respectively – but accompanied by no understanding; just like the war itself even in sympathetic assessments. To producer Derek Wax, “The country was turned into a free-fraud zone and oversight and control evaporated” and, though he adds that the series has no “political stance” [27], unmistakeable echoes of our present domestic political-economic disarray should leave no doubt that the constitutional violence and obscenity externalised in Iraq are intimately related to our internal State. Hopefully Green Zone (2010) will faithfully reflect its source to fill representational gaps about the clueless governance and dizzying corruption of Iraq’s postwar military-industrial complex [28]. But anyway, the combined upshot of this survey surely attributes the War on Terror’s post-traumatic stress orders and disorders conclusively to institutional dynamics, rather than the frailties of individuals who miserably but intelligibly can’t cope. How could they? The treatment is worse than the disease and, moreover, those in charge knew this, or didn’t care, or are unfit to govern (or all of the above...).

Prognosis Deferred

All the different angles covered so far – from the characters of the soldiers and officers and their conduct, to military command and rules of engagement, media strategies and believability, political control and bureaucratic processes – converge in agreement that the continuing tragedy of Iraq conclusively demonstrates things going very wrong. Yet no-one is shown conceptualising or articulating a general framework for what is wrong. Each of the films concentrates on the ambivalent fortunes of troubled individuals trying to find their own ways forward in full knowledge of the fundamental failure of institutions but unable to broaden the analysis beyond apathy, cynicism, or self-interest. Likewise, despite being accepted with resignation in many quarters as arguably still necessary or even unavoidable, the practice of contemporary war-is-hell is also generally intuited as symptomatic of some mortal affliction of the State. There is a sense of a glaring gap where traditional nobly vacuous rationalisations used to sit, which now appear to have lost their powers of legitimation except as faint backward-looking reminders of previous, more successfully engineered consensuses concerning societal purpose and victory over adversity.

And the visual fictions considered here do scrupulously avoid assessments of the war’s greater significance, for the US, UK or globally, or in connection with the world’s many other potential or actual conflict zones. The Iraq war cinema thus far “zooms in so closely on personal stories that it misses any overview. None of it deals with the underlying objectives of the American invasion ... or investigates allegations of financial mismanagement, profiteering and corruption” [29] – let alone the rather obvious hypothesis that these issues could be intimately linked. Even mainstream retrospections that Vietnam was a tragic, if well-meaning (in a Cold War sense) mistake – which Noam Chomsky and others spent years deconstructing against tidal waves of bitter social-democratic, liberal and conservative denunciation, as well as much of the supposedly provocative cinema of the time [30] – would scarcely satisfy anyone not desperately keen to be convinced if applied to Iraq. Who would really believe Bush and Blair and their apologists even if they did publicly accept either part of that judgement?

Although the participants represented in these films – assuming their lives and belief systems haven’t completely collapsed – retreat to personal justifications revolving around carrying out their individual or collective jobs (occasionally bolstered with vague nationalistic sentiment), the specifics of their experiences observably contradict any broader universalising aims which their work might reasonably be interpreted as serving. In effect, the components of Randolph Bourne’s State as “the country acting as a political unit, ... repository of force, determiner of law, arbiter of justice” now float free, disaggregated, failing to coalesce in motivational uniformity. Whereas, government enthusiasm for the ‘War on Terror’ notwithstanding, reactionary impulses in response to 9/11 or 7/7 instead emerge “obliquely through ... violent revenge fantasies such as the torture-porn Saw and Hostel series and the shoot-’em-up, slice-’em-up adventures of Shooter, Hitman, 300 and Transformers” [31]. Paul Haggis claims that the latter film, fully supported by the US Air Force and Defense Department, implicitly acknowledges that while “we can’t win the war over there, then at least we can win at home on our screens” [32] – a rearguard action by the State to bolster its mystique which incidentally signals a more Orwellian trajectory in domestic entrenchment.

So it’s scant consolation that, a century on, we can reverse Randolph Bourne’s dictum into ‘war is the sickness of the State’ – because Afghanistan’s abject quagmire continues, and tangible (as opposed to theoretically conceivable) benefits to ordinary Iraqis are hard to fathom. ‘Our’ fallen are still treated with pomp and circumstance, even if jingoistic accompaniments sound hollower than ever, both to the grief-stricken rehearsing them and audiences listening to spiritual and political ministers parroting along. Meanwhile, global government perpetually reshuffles the pack of ‘rogue’ and ‘failed’ States to set their sights on next – yet, strangely, dismantling their own morbidly miserable specimens is never contemplated. Instead militarising campaigns intensify within the body politic in blatant Newspeak charades against drugs, terrorism, protest and dissent, anti-social behaviour and, at base, all community health (i.e. ‘welfare’ and ‘spending’). In the new war of all against all, money can still be made from the biopolitical differentiation and disciplining of citizens – the better to surgically dehumanise undesirables and nonentities, as Mohammed Idrees Ahmad comprehensively details in ‘Fortress Britain’ [33].

And, after all, “The State ... is eternally at war”, as Bourne presciently put it. Owen Logan may well correctly interpret the present conjuncture as‘The Progress of Creeping Fascism’ [34], what with blind corporatism, idiot managerialism, rigid top-down control and unreflexive communication gradually strangling all public functions, such that James Heartfield could artfully revision oligarchic profitability as rather the handmaiden of national State power [35]. Whereas many of Bourne’s favoured public intellectuals offer nothing but helpless reiterations of their own philosophical taste for domination – like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou lionising long-dead Leninism, or Hollywood dinosaur Oliver Stone sanctifying neo-Stalinism in his new film South of the Border [36]. But magisterial quack remedies and patent nostrums in thrall to the clinical majesty of central authority no longer convince – just as rabid neoliberalism is grasped as poisonous pandemic rather than panacea, reflected now in the pusillanimous unanimity of party-political posturing over service cuts as mass-hysterical placebos for poverty. No, it’s time to relinquish omnipotence of all opinionated strains – starting, for example, with James C. Scott’s shamefully underappreciated Seeing Like A State [37], with its deconstruction of monolithic power at its apparently most beneficent thoroughly anchored from below. Then the significance of so many more-or-less fleeting autonomous experiments – in communal Mexico, Argentinian factory twocc-ing, humble social centres across Europe, South Korean suicide-strikes, bossnapping in France, Greek insurrections, the destitute decency of South African shantydwellers, and countless other inspirationally collective grassroots resistances of these times – may begin to coalesce in productive plans and projects to finally purge aristocratic disdain for our herd instincts.

Notes

1. ‘The State’ was left unfinished at Randolph Bourne’s death (in the Spanish flu pandemic) in 1918, aged 32. It’s first part, entitled ‘War Is the Health of the State’, was published in: Randolph Bourne, Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911-1918 (ed. Olaf Hansen, University of California Press, 1978) and War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays, 1911-1919 (ed. Carl Resek, Hackett Publishing, 1999). The full text is online at: http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/hist_texts/warhealthstate1918.html).
2. The term consistently borrowed, for instance, by radical US historian and anti-war activist Howard Zinn, such as in ‘War Is the Health of the State’, ch. 14 in: A People's History of the United States: From 1492 to the Present, Harper Collins, 1980 (available at: www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/zinnwarhea14.html); and see also: ‘War Is the Health of the State: an Interview with Howard Zinn’, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2003 (http://flag.blackened.net/ias/13zinn.htm). Bourne’s essay was recently republished for the UK campaign against the Iraq war in No War But the Class War: Libertarian Anti-militarism Then and Now (Kate Sharpley Library, 2003) along with contributions by Alexander Berkman, Ricardo Flores Magon and contemporary writers.
3. See my extensive discussion of Michael Moore, Fahrenheit 9/11 and new documentary styles in ‘Extracting the Michael’, Variant, 21, Winter 2004.
4. Premiering on Channel 4, 17th March 2005. Kosminsky’s prior films covered UN peacekeeping in Bosnia (Warriors, 1999), and the creation of New Labour (The Project, 2002), and he went on to make Britz (Channel 4, 2007), a manically oversimplistic fantasy of British Asian siblings who become an MI5 agent and suicide bomber respectively – reviewed in ‘A Bipolar Exposition’, in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 2, February 2008 (also at http://libcom.org).
5. by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (BBC, 2001). More on In The Loop can be found in ‘Parcels of Rogues’, Variant, 35, Summer 2009.
6. and it’s probably wise not to expect more than a good laugh from Roman Polanski’s The Ghost (2010), which tells the story of a recently retired Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) – who may yet face charges of international war crimes – writing his memoirs with the help of a professional ghost-writer (Ewan McGregor). See my review of the source novel by Robert Harris in ‘A Groupie’s Revenge’, Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 12, July 2008 (and at libcom.org).
7. Screened on Channel 4, 9th March 2006, with simultaneous global theatrical and DVD release. Michael Winterbottom had already made a pseudo-documentary drama, In This World (2002), reconstructing the journey of young Afghan refugees illegally immigrating to the UK. He went on to direct A Mighty Heart (2007), closely based on Mariane Pearl’s search in Pakistan for her abducted husband, the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel (who had extensively covered coalition activity in Afghanistan and was later found murdered).
8. The real-life case was the first publicised example of US extraordinary rendition. Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer, was born in Syria, where he was tortured for months before release without charge in 2003 – no thanks to any altruism on the part of CIA staff, by the way. Gavin Hood’s personal investment in the story arose from the disappearances of friends after arrest in apartheid-era South Africa.
9. The strand of the film dealing with the US intelligence service mess was inspired by Robert Baer’s whistleblowing in See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism (Crown Publishers, 2002). Note also that such parapolitical and corporate convolutions are fertile ground for the ultracynical adolescent humour exemplified in films like Team America: World Police (by South Park’sTrey Parker and Matt Stone, 2004) and War, Inc (Joshua Seftel, 2007).
10. The most successful such films included The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1987) and Born On The Fourth of July (1989) – for useful analyses see: Gilbert Adair, Hollywood’s Vietnam (revised ed., Heinemann, 1989) and Timothy Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture since Vietnam (Routledge, 1991). Later cinematic ruminations on war retreated to relatively safe expressionist and revisionist imaginings of World War Two heroism and the toll taken on troops – as in The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick, 1998) and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the 10-part TV Band of Brothers (2001) – or simply blasted off into sci-fi narcissisms of the United States of the Universe.
11. See my discussion of Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1998) and Jarhead (Sam Mendes, 2005), in the context of supposedly politically progressive recent Hollywood output, in ‘Rose Coloured Spectacles’, Variant, 27, Winter 2006. And the less said the better about the sick joke of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) snatching heroism from the jaws of US humiliation in its brief 2003 adventure in Somalia.
12. Redacted fictionalised the 2006 gang-rape and killing by a US patrol unit of a teenage Iraqi after shooting her family in Al-Mahmudiyah; Casulaties of War a 1966 case where four American soldiers abused a girl abducted from An Khe, Vietnam, for several days before disposing of her body.
13. A task otherwise left to Iraqi film-makers; see Ali Jaafar, ‘Home Truths’, Sight & Sound, February 2008, pp.18-19, for a preliminary survey. Battle For Haditha screened on Channel 4 in March 2008 (released theatrically abroad), followed on More4 by On That Day, a making-of documentary by Broomfield’s son Barney and writer Marc Hoeferlin. The unusual approach to casting and preparation matched (non-)actors to roles according to close similarity of experience, with ex-US army casualties on one side and Iraqi exiles in the film’s Jordanese location on the other, whereas lengthy improvisations and debriefings honed and often transformed the performances, dialogue and narrative. The film confirms Broomfield’s abandonment – as in the thinly-elaborated account of Chinese cockle-pickers lost in Morecambe Bay in Ghosts (2006) – of his previous entertaining, if limited, star persona as naïve investigator bumbling around with a boom-mike.
14. The film was produced and written by Mark Boal based initially on his ‘The Man In The Bomb Suit, Playboy, September 2005. Kathryn Bigelow has seductively spectacularised intimate visual flayings of the wayward weaknesses of masculinity, with virtuoso design and editing and vivid, hyperkinetic camerawork, in other generic subversions such as Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel (1989), Point Break (1991) and Strange Days (1995) – see Deborah Jermyn & Sean Redmond (eds.) The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor (Wallflower Press, 2003).
15. Generation Kill (HBO, 2008; now screening on Channel 4 during October and November) was directed by Susannah White & Simon Cellan Jones and based on Rolling Stone reports by Evan Hunter (compiled in Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War, Putnam, 2004). David Simon and Ed Burns’ previous television novelisations Homicide, The Corner and The Wire embroidered their own journalistic embedding in the ‘war on drugs’ in Baltimore, Maryland – with limitations of perspective, generalisability and participant interpretation analogous to those here (see discussion of The Wire in ‘Parcel of Rogues’, note 5).
16. Mr Manadel al-Jamadi, who had died during CIA torture.
17. The book version, Standard Operating Procedure: A War Story by Philip Gourevitch & Errol Morris (Picador, 2008), integrates the participant accounts of the conduct of Abu Ghraib’s torture regime gathered in research for the film.
18. See, for example, www.greencine.com/central/morrissop for a comprehensive discussion.
19. An exhaustive analysis of Sabrina Harman and the Cheshire Cat McGuffin of ‘that’ smile can be found in Morris’ New York Times blog (‘The Most Curious Thing’ at http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/19/).
20. such as the 2008 Tate Modern media art exhibition 9 Scripts from a Nation At War which presented the thoughts of various protagonists and observers with different positions, perspectives and prevailing understandings of the Iraq conflict – see Imogen O’Rorke’s review, ‘Flipping the Script’, at www.metamute.org.
21. In ‘On the Night Shift: From Lynndie England to Copper Green’ (Variant, 21, Winter 2004), Mike Small identifies the sickness of State executive control as the underlying issue: “...the US has exempted itself from international war crimes, and acts as a rogue state ... But judgment day comes – whether it’s from a generation politicised by lying politicians who preach morality as they send soldiers to do their dirty work and preach scripture as they sanction torture – or from the MPs who have announced plans to have Blair impeached for ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ in taking Britain to war against Iraq. Good luck to them, but the real test has to be to change the way the state works towards war like a cancer seeking healthy cells”. Critic and educationalist Henry Giroux’s Against the New Authoritarianism: Politics After Abu Ghraib (Arbeiter Ring, 2005; reviewed by Benjamin Franks in ‘Who Are You to Tell Me to Question Authority? Radical Education in a “Proto-fascist” Era’, Variant, 29, Summer 2007) interprets the Abu Ghraib photos in terms of the increasingly peremptory, privatised and unaccountable control-oriented institutional network in the US.
22. Directed by Marc Munden, The Mark of Cain was based on several such recorded instances in Basra researched in detail by Tony Marchant, a writer with a long pedigree tackling social issues using television soap and melodrama conventions – whose manipulative logic here assumes inappropriately Shakespearian proportions.
23. Also visible in Haggis’ previous film Crash (2005; see discussion in ‘Rose Coloured Spectacles’, note 11). In The Valley of Elah was co-written by Mark Boal (before finishing The Hurt Locker) based on his ‘Death and Dishonor’ (Playboy, May 2004) about Specialist Richard Davis of the 15th Infantry Regiment (which led the attack on Baghdad), who was murdered after returning from Iraq in 2003.
24. Directed by James C. Strouse, the film won screenplay and audience awards at the Sundance film festival – presumably forgiving its self-serving, soft-liberal reductivism conflating right-wing emotional dishonesty and consumerist distraction.
25. Peirce’s fierce partisanship of the marginalised (familiar from Boys Don’t Cry, 1999) was triggered here by friends of her brother – who enlisted after 9/11 – being repeatedly stop-lossed, like more than 100,000 others, to bandage the human resources crisis. Surprisingly, this film also received no UK cinema distribution. Meanwhile, alongside the unknown scale of individual resistance, only a few instances of organised rebellion in the US military in Iraq have been reported, particularly over inadequate kit and supplies (cf. Generation Kill); for example, see Echanges et Mouvement, ‘Mutinies in the American Army, 2004-2005’, Echanges, No. 111, Winter 2004-2005 (translated at http://libcom.org/library/2004-2005-mutinies-american-army-echanges-111). In wars fought with conscript forces, the situation may be very different. David Duncan’s Mutiny in the RAF: The Air Force Strikes of 1946 (Socialist History Society Occasional Papers Series, No 8, 1998, available at http://libcom.org/library/mutiny-raf-air-force-strikes-1946-david-duncan) documents action across much of the world in the post-WWII British military; for an account by a participant, see Albert Meltzer, ‘On “Active” Service; the Marquis and the Maquis; the Cairo Mutiny; Bounty on the Mutiny’, Ch. 5 in: I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels: Sixty Years of Commonplace Life and Anarchist Agitation, AK Press, 1996 (at: www.spunk.org/texts/writers/meltzer/sp001591/angeltoc.html). Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr.’s ‘Vietnam: The Collapse of the Armed Forces’ (Armed Forces Journal, June, 1971; posted at http://libcom.org/history/vietnam-collapse-armed-forces) describes the development of mass insubordination, desertion, rebellion and the GI resistance movement in the US army.
26.  ... or not, given Andrew Gilligan’s exposé of his own questionable journalism in the WMD spin fiasco – misquoting and betraying sources and precipitating his Controller’s downfall (meta-glossed in The Government Inspector). The Beeb’s subsequent silence presumably reflects the media self-censorship stressed by Noam Chomsky – on film in Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (directed by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, 1992) and Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky In Our Times (John Junkerman, 2002) – and, sure enough, neither Nick Murphy (Occupation’s director) or Peter Bowker (writer) are known for remotely political acuity and could be judged relatively safe hands. The six-hour trilogy aired primetime on consecutive nights on BBC 1, June 16th-18th 2009.
27. Cited by Benji Wilson in the Sunday Times, 14th June 2009.
28. Directed by Paul Greengrass and based on Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s account of Baghdad’s Coalition Provisional Authority after the fall of Saddam in Imperial Life in the Emerald City (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006) – including, for example, describing drunken neo-con graduate appointees dreaming up Paul Bremer’s dictats, paralleling In The Loop’s coincidental bullseye evoking the WMD dossier’s paraphrasing of student dissertations. Another of the British vanguard of ‘docudrama’, ‘faction’ or ‘real’ or ‘reality cinema’ directors along with Broomfield, Winterbottom and Kosminsky, Greengrass moved to making television films after years producing ITV’s World In Action – including The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (ITV, 1999) and the North of Ireland-set Bloody Sunday (ITV, 2002) and Omagh (Channel 4, 2004). Hitting the big-time with the daft Bourne (probably not named after Randolph!) fugue-State paranoid spy franchise (Supremacy, 2004; Ultimatum, 2007), his schizoid oscillation between modest UK-style social realism and Hollywood blockbuster bombast interrupted the latter with a no-frills portrayal of 9/11 flight United 93 (2006).
29. Ali Jaafar, ‘Casualties of War’, Sight & Sound, February 2008, p.22.]
30. See Adair (1989) and Corrigan (1991) (note 10).
31. Jaafar, note 29, p.20. Transformers was directed by knucklehead action maestro Michael Bay (2007).
32. Quoted in Jaafar, p.20.
33. In Variant, 32, Summer 2008 – characterising it as a “dangerous confluence of interests ... as much a consequence of ill-conceived alliances as it is a response to the neoliberal order’s need for distraction from its inherent contradictions ... [by scaring] the hell out of the population” (p.35). In the same issue of Variant, see also my ‘Craven New World’, about recent film fictions projecting these trends into the near UK future.
34. Variant, 35, Summer 2009; the progress of which “is being helped along by the opportunism of those who would like to call themselves democrats, and the insincerity of nationalists who have no commitment to realising the sovereignty of the people” (p.6).
35. James Heartfield, ‘State Capitalism in Britain’, Mute, June 2009 (www.metamute.org/content/state_capitalism_in_britain).
36. Hardly more than a vanity-piece for Hugo Chavez, the ‘socialist’ president of Venezuela (also hyped as a proletarian hero by Zizek in ‘Resistance is Surrender’, London Review of Books, November 2007). Stone’s effort was preceded by a far more effective contextualisation by diehard leftie John Pilger in The War On Democracy (2007, co-directed with Chris Martin); see my critique in ‘Naming and Shaming the Backyard Bully’, Black Flag, 227, April 2008 (and on libcom.org), for more on why such political cures only temporarily mask symptoms.
37. James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, 1998.

 

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The Place of Artists’ Cinema
Robert Porter

The Place of Artists’ Cinema: Space, Site and Screen
Maeve Connolly
Intellect Books (Bristol) May 2009

On picking up and reading Meave Connolly’s The Place of Artists’ Cinema I was immediately struck by two things. First, the scope and depth of the work as the concept of ‘artists’ cinema’ is tirelessly operationalised and consistently enlivened across five detailed, rather different and differentiating (but always cogent) substantive chapters. Second, Connolly’s passion, perhaps even advocacy, for the works she discusses comes through strongly and the reader is left with the distinct impression that while not simply a work of canonisation (a possibility or danger Connolly herself acknowledges early on in the text), this book is moved by a desire to praise rather than bury, and is therefore critical in an affirmative and productive sense. In other words (and as we shall see from our brief survey of the five substantive chapters in a moment), Connolly’s arguments force us to think of ‘artists’ cinema’ as a form or practice that raises interesting questions, for example, about the nature of ‘place’, about the ‘market’ or ‘post-Fordist capital’, about the notion of the ‘public space’, about the status and scope of ‘events’ and so on. Let us, then, survey in rather brief and broad brushstrokes how Connolly’s discussion of ‘artists’ cinema’ engages these (and other) ideas as they unfold across the five substantive chapters of the book

In chapter one, artists’ cinema is identified with notions of the interstitial or ‘betweenness’. This discussion is worthwhile and productive precisely because Connolly immediately dispenses with any suggestion of a definitional game, where ‘artists’ cinema is X’, and that X is ‘betweenness’, and ‘betweenness’ might be then seen as Y. Rather, the concern here is to operationalise the concept of artists’ cinema by connecting it in interesting ways to different logics of betweenness that could be found in, say, art theory, film studies, European philosophy, and significantly in studies of organisational culture and in the machinations of the ‘knowledge economy’ that are taken to be characteristic of ‘post-Fordism’ (for instance, Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism is a key text for Connolly). More particularly, or to give some working examples, Connolly charts how the idea of artists’ cinema emerges from in-between contesting genealogies which seek to frame it as an extension of either experimental film, or installation, or video, or performance; how its reception can be thought to move between the habitual practices of the ‘exhibition visitor’ or ‘cinema spectator’; how it functions between and across the art market (as an ‘art object’) and the film market (as an ‘arthouse film’).

The notion of where and how to place artists’ cinema in a market is also a central concern in chapter two. Focusing ‘on developments in the marketplace since the mid-1990s’, and informed, as we said, by Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism ‘which charts the reorganisation of capitalism in the wake of 1968’, Connolly is keen to track movements in-between the ‘production and ‘circulation’ of art practices and practices in broader audio-visual cultures. For example, she argues that from the mid-90s we can see how the need to secure funding for projects has compelled filmmakers to take up the position of artist in the gallery, or, conversely, how artists often have to show they have the skills of a film producer in order to resource, manage and promote their projects. Connolly’s point, as I understand it at least, is not simply the general one that such movements between art practices and practices in broader audio-visual cultures reproduce a logic of production and circulation peculiar to the current economic conjuncture; that is, ‘post-Fordist capital’. For it is also important to understand how the state or institutions – in particular social-political formations – can specifically operationalise logics of flexibilisation in organisation and employment practices. Pointing, for instance, to the history of the ‘Workshop Agreement’ in a UK broadcasting context (a union-backed agreement that allowed various workshop groups to work on low-budget film and television productions), Connolly puts to work the analysis of labour and organisational culture offered by Boltanski and Chiapello.

In chapter three, Connolly shifts focus to consider how certain forms of artists’ cinema (particularly multi-screen projections) are implicated in the ‘staging of publicness in contemporary art museums’. The following eight works are discussed: Jane and Louise Wilson’s Stasi City (1997); Doug Aitken’s eraser (1998); Willie Doherty’s Re-Run (2002); Isaac Julien’s Baltimore (2003); Jaki Irivine’s The Silver Bridge (2002); Eija-Liisa Athila’s Consolation Service (1999); Shirin Neshat’s Turbulent (1998); Anne Tallentire’s Drift: diagram vii (2005). As Connolly herself acknowledges, these works are rather disparate, but the overwhelming impression created by the engaging and thoughtful analyses provided here is of a formal homology between them, at least to the extent that they are all concerned to engage with problems of public memory or political questions about the formation of public space and the social body. Personally, I was rather taken by the analysis of Eija-Liisa Athila’s Consolation Service (1999), particularly the way in which Connolly folded the key themes she saw operating in the work (namely, the relationship between ‘conflict resolution, public space, and the spectral or supernatural’) into a discussion of what Oliver Marchart would call the ‘post-foundational’ political theory of thinkers such as Claude Lefort (see pp. 92-97).1

In chapter four, Connolly examines ‘the relationship between site, document and location in several examples of artists’ cinema works, many of which seem to operate between ‘originating and displaced contexts’ (110). Now, although most of the works discussed seem to exhibit or appropriate modes of address from documentary film and television, and although the thematic concerns of these works (say, labour and migration patterns in an increasingly globalised world) are commonly explored through documentary media, they are not, in the majority of cases, making any claim to be documentary in form. Connolly’s discussion of these works is organised in two parts. First, she looks at a selection of works by Laura Horelli, Tacita Dean, Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor (known also as the ‘desperate optimists’), and Jeremy Deller and the concern here is to show how their mode of production and exhibition gives rise to what she calls ‘the hybrid formation of the event-site’ (111). Second, she looks at a selection of works by Pierre Huyghe, Stan Douglas, Melik Ohanian and Gerald Byrne, to show how these works imply or involve ‘the reconstruction, remaking, re-staging or re-enactment’ of events (111). Indeed, the dramatization or re-enactment of events or occurrences that have been depicted in other forms (say, Hollywood, TV, press, documentary or whatever…) itself becomes a new ‘event-site’, where an ‘event-site’ implies, in Huyghe’s phrasing, a ‘replay’ that ‘supersedes’ the original actual occurrence as such.

In the fifth and final substantive chapter, Connolly is interested in how artists’ cinema can function to physically construct ‘a cinematic kind of space in museums, galleries and other art world spaces, and the immaterial processes and strategies involved in the staging of these spaces as cinematic’ (165). Focusing primarily on works shown in galleries and museums by artists such as Bea McMahon, Aurelien Froment and Carlos Amorales, or works presented in adapted or invented versions of ‘pavilions’ at the Venice Biennale (for example, Aernout Mik, Andreas Fogarasi, Francesso Vezzoli and Tobias Putrih) or other biennial exhibitions (for example, the work of Thomas Demand), Connolly wants to show how they are all intrinsically or immanently concerned with the formation of social space. Again, the argument comes in two parts. The works discussed in the first part are shown to explore notions of the collective through ‘the architecture of the cinema and the material physical structures that reference the movie theatre, sometimes staging the exhibition “pavilion” as space for reflection on…spectatorship’ (166). In part two, we are offered a different perspective on the relation between spectatorship and materiality as Connolly focuses on a diverse selection of moving image works that ‘explore the material properties of the screen, rather than the cinema environment’ (166). In some works (for example, the works of Aernout Mik) screens are used to organise and control movements, evoking the material architecture of social control and law. Or, to take but one other example discussed by Connolly, in Bea McMahon’s work the position of the screen and the treatment of the screen surface form ‘part of a more open-ended exploration of identity, architecture and public space’ (166).

If you read this book (which I wholeheartedly suggest you do) I fancy you will experience, as I did, the author’s demand that you shift focus and re-orient your intellectual compass as you move from chapter to chapter, and it is clear (as Connolly makes clear) that all the chapters in the book have been written and reconstructed out of a series of previously, perhaps even rather disparate, articles, reviews and conference papers. Perhaps in the hands of a lesser author, the diversity of material dealt with here would have meant the text risked falling into incoherence. But time and again, Connolly dispels any concerns the reader may have in this regard as she always take great care to map out the key themes of her argument, is always very generous in acknowledging the sources from which she is drawing her inspiration, and is always critically sensitive to the context of the discourses and concepts she so adroitly engages with.

Of course, there is always the possibility of engaging other material or sources and the reader may well find herself or himself supplementing Connolly’s argument in ways that inevitably move beyond the confines or frame of her argument. For example, and I’ll conclude my remarks with this minor quibble, I found the discussion of Pierre Huyghe’s work The Third Memory in chapter four slightly surprising, even odd. For after suggesting at the beginning of the chapter a concept of the ‘event-site’, a notion which she says is ‘informed by Pierre Huyghe’s claim that “replay” now supersedes the event itself’ (111), Connolly then discusses The Third Memory later in the chapter (see pp. 139-142) against the backcloth of Frederic Jameson’s ideas of ‘authorship, characterisation and performance’, ideas that are said to run through ‘The Third Memory and Huyghe’s practice as a whole’ (142). Why, then, did this strike me as odd? Well, it seems to me that the concept of event-site, implying as it does a replay of an event that supersedes its original actual occurrence, inevitably brings to mind Alain Badiou’s notion of the event, where the ‘event’ itself precisely becomes a kind of replay, a new site in which the original actual occurrence is played out in a mode of subjectivity that is structured by a ‘fidelity’ to it.2 In other words, I did expect that a discussion about the nature of events would inevitably entail an engagement with some of the most currently influential philosophies of the event, and particularly Badiou’s as this seems to connect explicitly to Huyghe’s notion of the ‘replay’ as used by Connolly in the text.

Notes

1.   Marchart, O. (2007) Post-Foundational Political Thought: Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
2.   See Badiou, A. (2006) Being and Event, London: Continuum.

 

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