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BBC Documentary on Artist’s Fightback Against Fascist Appropriation of Pepe the Frog

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 24/10/2020 - 4:21am in

Next Monday, 26th October 2020, BBC’s Storyville documentary follows artist Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe the Frog, as he tries to wrest his image back from the Alt Right. The programme’s on BBC 4 at 10.00 pm, and is entitled ‘Pepe the Frog: Feels Good Man’ The blurb for the programme on page 75 of this coming week’s Radio Times runs

Pepe, a cartoon frog drawn in a deliberately crude and garish style, has become a symbol of the “alt-right”; its use is shorthand for a social media poster proudly announcing themselves to be a troll at best and a full neo-Nazi at worst.

But the little green guy was originally part of a harmless cartoon strip drawn by illustrator Matt Furie and, rather than conceding that sometimes artists lose control of their creations, he’s fought back. We watch as Furie takes on both anonymous troublemakers and the big beasts of the American right-wing media – the big problem being that, arguably, if you engage with them at all, you’ve already lost.

Another blurb on page 77 says

The story of how a cute cartoon character morphed into an international hate symbol after being hijacked by the “alt-right”. This film in the Storyville strand follows Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe, as he fights tooth and nail to wrest back his amiable amphibian from the dark forces that appropriated him.

The Pepe meme as a symbol of the Alt Right must have been around for at least a decade now, and it’s been scrawled by noxious extreme rightists all over the place, from the internet to real objects. It also seems to be connected to the slogan, ‘Free Kekistan’, which is also mouthed by the Alt Right and their supporters. I think one of the issues raised against Sargon of Gasbag, Paul Joseph Watson and Count Dankula when they tried to join UKIP was that a crowd of people, claiming to be their supporters, got drunk and started waving Pepe the Frog flags and shouting ‘Free Kekistan’.

I realise that Furie’s got an uphill battle on his hands to win back ownership of his creation from the trolls, racists and Nazis. There have been countless other creators, writers and artists, who’ve similarly lost control of theirs over the years. The Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta is a case in point. Unfortunately, after the film the rights don’t belong to the strip’s creator, the legendary Alan Moore. Rather they belong to the film company, which is very much the kind of exploitative global corporation Moore despises. It’s because of this and similar issues over creators’ rights that has left Moore very bitter about aspects of the comics industry. However, the meaning of the Guy Fawkes mask as an image has remained the same, and has been very much used as such by protestors demonstrating against forces and ideologies like global capitalism, racism and official persecution and injustice. It isn’t as though it’s meaning has been co-opted and perverted by those forces.

This could be a very interesting programme indeed. And no matter how difficult it is, I wish Furie all the best in his struggle to get Pepe back from the trolls and Fascists.


Stay in your Lane: the oxymoron of ‘authentic fiction’ (Part I)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 22/10/2020 - 3:01am in

A ‘not mandatory’ question

I recently noticed a question in the guidelines of a prestigious short-story prize run by a respected left-wing Australian journal. This question asks entrants to declare if their story ‘takes up the voice or experience’ of marginalised or vulnerable identities and, if it does, if the entrant personally identifies with who and/or what their story depicts. (The journal wants to know, for example, if a story about a refugee has been written by a refugee.) While the guidelines state that it is ‘not mandatory’ for entrants to answer this question, they also emphasise how ‘agonising’ it is for judges to decide whether a story is ‘appropriate’ for publication when ‘experience or identities are assumed or guessed’ and an author’s ‘cultural authority’ is unknown. Though the editors say they will ‘uphold the integrity of the blind judging process’, they nevertheless explain that judges can request this volunteered, identity-specific information during the selection process. I haven’t named the competition or journal here because it’s irrelevant; what is relevant is how this question illuminates the forces that are increasingly shaping the reading, writing and publishing of fiction in Australia and beyond.

As a fiction writer, I find this ‘not mandatory’ question deeply troubling. Though it might be voluntary to answer it, this question immediately communicates a warning about cultural appropriation: that is, it warns me that the judges will not only be judging the inherent qualities of my work but might also be judging whether my particular story is dis/allowable (‘appropriate’) for me to write—and, by extension, dis/allowable for people to read. Being covert, this question provokes authorial confusion and anxiety because it is unclear which rules determine this appropriateness, who decides what these rules are, and what the punishments might be if these rules are broken.

Are these judges, I wonder, genuinely concerned about cultural appropriation? Or are they actually concerned about the accusations of cultural appropriation that are likely to result (via social media) if they award and publish a story that turns out to be written by someone who doesn’t identify clearly and directly with their subject matter?

If the latter is true—and I suspect it is—then it is very worrying that such a respected and experienced journal should allow the selection of their fiction to be dictated by fear rather than by the quality of submissions.

A fact: all fiction is appropriative

Concerns about cultural appropriation, and the related phenomenon of ‘cancel culture’, are not new. See Guy Rundle’s recent Arena article for a discussion of current Australian debates. Without diminishing the social injustices against which these complainants protest, Rundle points out that ‘those artists who argue for a robust ban [of appropriative texts] face the paradox that it clearly trends towards not a political aesthetic but an anti-aesthetic—a moral ban on representation altogether’. (This trend towards obliteration seems epitomised by Michelle Law’s recent swerve from condemning others’ apparently appropriative texts to condemning her own via the disturbing, but increasingly common, ‘I am ashamed’ mea culpa ritual on social media.) Rundle’s point suggests that, if one wants to ban culturally appropriative texts, then ultimately all fiction must be banned.

Two experienced fiction writers—whose positions on other matters probably diverge—would likely agree with Rundle, here. In her inaugural speech to the 2016 Brisbane Writers’ Festival, Lionel Shriver argued: ‘the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction… All that’s left is memoir’. Zadie Smith elaborates, relating the necessarily appropriative nature of fiction to the necessarily appropriative nature of personal and social psychology:

Our social and personal lives are a process of continual fictionalization, as we internalize the other-we-are-not, dramatize them, imagine them, speak for them and through them. The accuracy of this fictionalization is never guaranteed, but without an ability to at least guess at what the other might be thinking, we could have no social lives at all.

Selves, in other words, are constituted by other selves—both in the mind and on the page—through a wildly inaccurate imaginative process of reckless consumption and (re)creation. Smith focuses attention on the value-laden concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ itself, suggesting that this notion is useless for understanding fiction:

What would our debates about fiction look like…if our preferred verbal container for the phenomenon of writing about others was not ‘cultural appropriation’ but rather ‘interpersonal voyeurism’ or ‘profound-other-fascination’ or even ‘cross-epidermal reanimation’?

Similarly, Shriver argues that fiction is a rude, disrespectful, prying, voyeuristic and kleptomaniacal vocation by its nature. Both writers see fiction as fundamentally presumptuous, and would agree with Rundle’s assertion that, if one wants to ban culturally appropriative texts, then all fiction must be banned.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied walked out of Shriver’s speech, protesting against what she saw as a colonial attack on minority identities. In her counter-attacking article, Abdel-Magied accuses Shriver of presenting a ‘tirade’ that mocked those who want writers to ‘seek permission to use their stories’. She sums up Shriver’s speech as ‘a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others’. Shriver never made the (ambiguous) demand that ‘the right to identity’ should be ‘given up’ by anyone, and Abdel-Magied largely ignores Shriver’s core concern that fiction is inherently appropriative. Abdel-Magied thus seems to react to the context of Shriver’s speech, confusing or conflating Shriver’s self-proclaimed ‘smartass’ manner (which may well express beliefs and prejudices beyond her words) with the wider context of prejudice and systemic discrimination. As Abdel-Magied states: ‘How is it that…[a] straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?’

This is a pertinent question—but its object of concern is not the general phenomenon of cultural appropriation (or the specific phenomenon of fictional appropriation) but the wider reality of social inequality. Fiction writer Claire G. Coleman recently drew attention to how this wider reality is the key to understanding debates about appropriation, tweeting:

it is not what is written that determines what we have available to read, it is what is published. It is not what is written that determines, to a degree, what is well known, it’s what is reviewed. Publishers are responsible for ensuring #OwnVoices are published.

#OwnVoices is a movement that, to use Coleman’s words, asks mainstream writers to ‘take a back-seat’ and ‘allow’ minority groups ‘to have a go at writing their identities’. If all writers had equal access to (and respect within) the cultural conversation, however, then #OwnVoices might—happily—become redundant. As Smith asserts, ‘a variety of portrayals’ is key to fighting a literature that traps people in ‘distorted mirrors, monstrous cliché, debasing ridicule’ and ‘false containment’.

All of these writers respond to a terrain of public discourse where the fight for social justice increasingly collides into, and becomes conflated or confused with, specific questions about writing and identity. This terrain is signified—but never actually described—by notions of ‘cultural appropriation’. It’s no wonder that publishers are worried about how their fictional texts will be received in this emotionally charged, confused—and confusing—environment. Their understandable anxiety does not, however, change the very simple fact that, if they genuinely object to cultural appropriation, they must not publish fiction. If publishers are, in actuality, wanting to fight wider, systemic discrimination (which may, or may not, be enacted via cultural appropriation) then the single most powerful intervention they can make is affirmative action.

Significantly, affirmative action focuses attention on how identities relate to power structures. Unfortunately, publishers and commentators—wary of the turbulent debates ostensibly about ‘cultural appropriation’—anxiously fixate on the wrong object: that is, on how an author’s identity relates to their subject of writing. This fixation suggests a common but misguided belief that an author’s (claim to) a particular identity somehow ‘authorises’ them to write particular stories that—presumed to be ‘authentic’—are then immunised against charges of appropriation.

Part II of this essay will be published on the 29th of October.

The Anti-Aesthetic of Cancel Culture

Guy Rundle, 8/8/2020

The implicit politics of the present—in which the deep left aim of creating a society of universal self-flourishing is rendered as a society of universal ‘safety’, in an expanded sense—trends towards a ban on representation, since any representation of suffering or wrong can be taken as exploitation or aggression.

Book on Revolutionary Trade Unionism, Fascism and the Corporative State

David D. Roberts, Syndicalist Tradition & Italian Fascism (University of North Carolina Press, 1979).

Syndicalism is a form of revolutionary socialism that seeks to overthrow the liberal state and replace it with a society based on the trade unions in which they run industry. It was particularly strong in France, and played a major role in Catalonia and the struggle against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. It has also been a strand in the British labour movement, and produced a peculiar British form, Guild Socialism, whose leaders included the great socialist writer and former Fabian, G.D.H. Cole.

Fascism Mixture of Different Groups

Fascism was a strange, heterogenous mixture of different, and often conflicting groups. These included former syndicalists, radicalised veterans from the First World War, ultra-conservative Nationalists and the Futurists, an aggressive modern artistic movement that celebrated war, speed, violence, masculinity, airplanes, cars and the new machine age. Some of these groups shared roughly the same ideas. The war veterans were deeply impressed with the corporative constitution drafted by Alceste de Ambris for D’Annunzio’s brief regime in Fiume, the Carta de Carnaro. Superficially, the Fascist syndicalists shared the same goal of creating a corporate state to govern industrial relations and run industry. However, they approached this from very different directions. The Nationalists, led by Alfredo Rocco, were ultra-Conservative businessmen, who attacked liberal democracy because of the corruption involved in Italian politics. At the same time they feared the power of the organised working class. As Italy modernised, it underwent a wave of strikes. In response, Rocco recommended that the state should take over the trade unions, using them as its organ to discipline the workers, keep the masses in their place while training them to perform their functions efficiently in the new, industrial Italy. The syndicalists, on the other hand, wanted the trade unions to play a role in industrial management and at the same time draw the working class into a fuller participation in politics. The working class had been excluded from the liberal state, but through their economic organisations, the unions, they could play a much fuller role as these governed their everyday lives. They saw the corporations and the corporate state as a means of increasing democracy and popular participation, not limiting it.

Fascist Corporativism

The corporations themselves are industrial organisations rather like the medieval guilds or trade unions. However, they included both the trade unions and employers organisations. There were already nine of them, but by the end of the regime in 1943 there were 27. Under Rocco’s Labour Charter, the Carta del Lavoro, strikes and lockouts were forbidden in the name of industrial peace and class collaboration. The corporation were required to settle labour disputes. However, if management and the unions were unable to reach agreement, then the dispute was to be referred to labour magistracy for settlement in special labour courts. Mussolini also reformed the Italian parliament, transforming the Chamber of Deputies into a Chamber of Fasces and Corporations. In practice the corporate state never amounted to very much. It never won over real working class support, and the corporations were never given real legislative power. It merely added another layer of bureaucracy and acted as nothing more than a rubber stamp to pass the policies Mussolini had already made. And he seems to have used it as ideological window dressing to give the impression that here was more to Fascism than his personal dictatorship.

The Unification of Italy and Political Alienation

The book argues that the corporate state was a genuine attempt to solve the deep problems of Italian unification left over from the Risorgimento. At the same time, it was also a radical response to the crisis, breakdown and revision of Marxist socialism and the failure of Marxist syndicalism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The process of unification has produced an attitude of deep alienation from the state and politics amongst Italians, and Fascism was partly a response to this. This alienation isn’t confined to Italians, but it is particularly acute. Social studies in the 1970s showed that Italians are less likely than Americans, Brits or Germans to become politically involved. They regard the state as distant with little interest in them. At the same time, there is also an expectation that the bureaucrats in Rome will help them.

Like Germany, Italy was unified by military force and the invasion of the other, constituent states. However, for reasons of speed and a determination to preserve the new nation’s fragile unity, the other Italian states were simply annexed by Piedmont to be governed from there. There was supposed to be a constituent assembly in which the other states were to have their say in the creation of the new Italy, but this simply didn’t happen. At the same time, the industrialisation promoted by Italian liberals was concentrated in the north, so that the south remained backward and agricultural. The franchise was extremely restricted. It excluded illiterates, so that originally only 2 per cent of the population could vote. This was later extended to 7 per cent. At the same time, Italy’s leaders prevented the formation of proper political parties by taking over individuals from different parliamentary factions in order to form workable governing majorities. At the same time there was discontent and widespread criticism of the protectionism imposed to help the development of Italian heavy industry. Middle class critics believed that this unfairly benefited it at the expense of more dynamic and productive sectors of the economy. This led to the belief that Italy was being held back by class of political parasites.

This backwardness also led to an acute sense of pessimism amongst the elite over the character of the Italian people themselves. The Americans, British and Germans were disciplined with proper business values. Italians, on the other hand, were lazy, too individualistic and defied authority through lawlessness. This meant that liberalism was inadequate to deal with the problems of Italian society. ‘This English suit doesn’t fit us’, as one Fascist said. But this would change with the adoption of Fascism. One of Mussolini’s minions once declared that, thanks to Fascism, hard work and punctuality were no longer American, German and British values.

Syndicalism, Marxism and the Revision of Socialism

By the 1890s there was a crisis throughout Europe in Marxist socialism. Marx believed that the contradictions in capitalism and the continuing impoverishment of working people would lead to eventual revolution. But at this stage it was evident that capitalism was not collapsing. It was expanding, wages were rising and the working class becoming better off. This led to the reformist controversy, in which socialist ideologues such as Bernstein in Germany recommended instead that socialist parties should commit themselves to reforming capitalism gradually in order to create a socialist society. The syndicalists were originally Marxists, who looked forward to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. However, they became increasingly disenchanted with Marxism and critical of the leading role of the working class. They originally believed, as with the French syndicalist Georges Sorel, that the class-conscious workers would be a new source of values. But they weren’t. They also believed that this would only be achieved through a long process of education through general strikes. They were horrified by the biennio rosso, the two years of strikes and industrial unrest that came after the end of the war, when it seemed that the Italian labour movement was going to follow the Russian Bolsheviks and create a revolution for which Italy and it working class were not ready.

At the same time, they came to reject Marxism’s doctrine that the political was determined by the economic sphere. They believed that Italy’s political problems could not be reduced to capitalism. Hence they believed that capitalism and private industry should be protected, but made subordinate to the state. Work was a social duty, and any industrial who did not run his company properly could, in theory, be removed and replaced. They also sought to give the workers a greater role in industrial management. This led them to go beyond the working class. They found a new revolutionary group in the Italian war veterans, who were radicalised by their experiences. These would have joined the socialists, but the latter had been strongly neutralist and as a result rejected and ridiculed the former soldiers for their patriotism. These found their ideological and political home with the syndicalists. At the same time, the syndicalists rejection of Marxist socialism led to their rediscovery of other, non-Marxist socialist writers like Mazzini, who also rejected liberalism in favour of a tightly knit Italian nation. Their bitter hatred of the corruption in Italian politics and its parasites led them to join forces with anarchists and other sectors of the Italian radical tradition. They believed that for Italy truly to unite and modernise, the workers should join forces with properly modernising industrialists in an alliance of producers.

Syndicalist Opposition to Mussolini’s Rapprochement to the Socialists

Looking at the development of Italian Fascism, it can seem that there was a certain inevitability to the emergence of Mussolini’s dictatorship and the totalitarian Fascist state. But this argues that there was nothing inevitable about it, and that it was forced on Mussolini in order to stop his movement falling apart. When Mussolini entered parliament and took over as prime minister, he seemed to be transforming what was originally a movement into the very type of party that the Fascist rank and file were in revolt against. Fascism was reconstituted as a party, and when the future Duce met the kind, he wore the top hat and frock coat of an establishment politician. Worse, Mussolini had started out as a radical socialist, and still seemed determined to work with them and other working class and left-wing parties. He signed a pacification pact with the Socialists and Populists, the Roman Catholic party, stopping the Fascist attacks on them, the trade unions and workers’ and peasants’ cooperatives. This horrified the syndicalists, who saw it as a threat to their own programme of winning over the workers and creating the new, corporatist order. As a result they pressurised Mussolini into rescinding that pacts, Mussolini and Fascism moved right-ward to ally with the capitalists and industry in the destruction of working class organisations.

Syndicalists and the Promotion of the Working Class

But it seems that the syndicalists were serious about defending the working class and giving it a proper role through the corporations in the management of industry and through that, political participation in the Italian state. Left Fascists like Olivetti and Ugo Spirito believed that the Italian state should operate a mixed economy, with the state running certain companies where appropriate, and the trade unions owning and managing cooperatives. Some went further, and recommended that the corporations should take over the ownership of firms, which would be operated jointly by management and the workers. This never got anywhere, and was denounced by other left syndicalists, like Sergio Pannunzio, one of their leaders.

From Internationalism to Imperialism

The book also raises grim astonishment in the way it reveals how the Syndicalists, who were initially quite internationalist in outlook, came to support Fascist imperialism. They shared the general Fascist view that Italy was being prevented from developing its industry through British and French imperialism. The two powers blocked Italy from access to trading with their colonies. They were therefore also critical of the League of Nations when it was set up, which they saw as an attempt by the great powers to maintain the international status quo. The Nationalists, who were formally merged with the Fascists, went further and demanded that Italy too should have an empire to benefit its industry, but also to provide land for colonisation by the surplus Italian population. Without it, they would continue to be forced to emigrate to countries like America and Britain, where they would become the lowest and most despised part of their working class. The syndicalists were also acutely aware of how low Italians were regarded and exploited in these countries, even by other members of the working class.

The syndicalists during the war and early post-war years criticised the Nationalists for their militarism and imperialism. Instead of looking forward to perpetual war, as the Nationalists did, they wanted to see instead the emergence of a new, federal European order in which nations would cooperate. This new federal state would eventually cover the world. They also looked forward to a new, equitable arrangement over access to the colonies. Pannunzio did support colonialism, which he believed was bringing civilisation to backward areas. But he also believed that colonies that were unable to become nations in their own right should be taken over by the League of Nations. Pannunzio declared ‘Egotism among nations is a material and moral absurdity; nations … cannot lived closed and isolated by must interact and cooperate’. This changed as time went on and Mussolini established the corporate state. This was always fragile and tentative, and accompanied by concessions to other sectors of Fascism on the right. In order to defend their fragile gains, the syndicalists gave their full backing to the Second World War and its imperialism, which they saw as a crusade to bring the corporate state, the great Italian achievement, but a backward world.

Workers Should Have a Role In Government, But Not Through Totalitarianism

I have to say I like certain aspects of the corporate state. I like the idea of trade unionists actively involved in the management of industry and in a special department of parliament, although as Sidney and Beatrice Webb point out in their Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain, there are severe drawbacks with it. But any such corporatist chamber would have to be an expansion of liberal democracy, not a replacement for it. And I utterly reject and despise Fascism for its vicious intolerance, especially towards socialism and the working class, its rejection of democracy, and especially the militarism, imperialism and racism. Like Nazism it needs to be fought everywhere, in whatever guise it arises.

And the book makes very clear that the corporate state was an exaggerated response to genuine Italian problems, problems that could be solved within liberal, democratic politics.

Perhaps one day we shall see the return of trade unionists to parliaments reformed to allow them to play their proper role in government and industry. I make this recommendation in my booklet, For A Worker’s Chamber. But it should never be through any kind of autocratic, totalitarian regime.

‘I’ Report on Conviction of Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn as Criminal Gang

First a piece of good news. Yesterday’s I for 8th October 2020 reported that a Greek court had convicted the Golden Dawn of being a criminal organisation. This was the Golden Dawn that’s a neo-Nazi outfit responsible for violent attacks on immigrants, left-wing activists and the murder of rap singer, not the Golden Dawn, which was an early 20th century occult society. Although the latter did briefly have Aleister Crowley, the Beast 666 and the ‘wickedest man in the world’ as a member.

The ‘I’s report on page 25, by Derek Gatopoulos, runs

A Greek court has ruled that the far-right Golden Dawn party was operating as a criminal organisation, delivering a landmark verdict in a marathon five-year trial.

The court ruled that seven of the party’s 18 former legislators, including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, were guilty of leading a criminal organisation, while the others were guilty of participating in one.

As news of the guilty verdicts broke, cheers and celebrations erupted among the crowd of more than 15,000 people gathered in an anti-fascist rally outside the Athens courthouse.

A small group among the crowd threw Molotov cocktails and stones and police responded with tear gas and water cannon.

The marathon trial had been assessing four cases rolled into one: the 2013 fatal stabbing of Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas, physical attacks on Egyptian fishermen in 2012, and on left-wing activists in 2013, and whether Golden Dawn was operating as a criminal organisation.

The 68 defendants included the 18 former legislators from the party that was founded in the 80s as a neo-Nazi organisation and rose to become Greece’s third-largest.

Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the verdict “ends a traumatic cycle” in the country’s public life.

The three-member panel of judges also delivered a guilty verdict against Giorgos Roupakias for the murder of Mr Fyssas. prompting applause in the courtroom and among the crowd.

Roupakios had been accused of being a party supporter who delivered the fatal stab wound to Mr Fyssas. Another 15 defendants – none of them former legislators – were convicted as accomplices.

Outside the courthouse, Mr Fyssas’s mother, Magda, who had attended every session over five years, raised her arms and shouted: “Pavlos did it. My son!” All five people accused of attempted murder against the fishermen were also found guilty, while the four accused of attempted murder in athe attacks against left-wing activists were found guilty of the lesser charge of causing bodily harm.

“Today marks a huge victory for justice and respect for Greece and the entire world,” said Eva Cosse of Human Rights Watch. “It sends a strong message that hate crimes are not and should not, be tolerated in a democratic society.”

There was never any real doubt that the Golden Dawn were a neo-Nazi organisation, although they denied it. They took as their symbol the angular design used in ancient Greek friezes which resembles a series of interlinked swastikas. Whenever they were asked about it and its similarity to the Nazi symbol, they claimed instead, quite rightly but disingenuously, that it was an ancient Greek design. They also celebrated the ancient Spartans. They were the ruling Herrenvolk of the Greek city state of Sparta, a society geared to war. Babies were examined after their birth to make sure that they had no physical defects or malformities. Those who failed the test were brutally disposed of by being thrown into a nearby cavern. Archaeologists have chillingly discovered the bones of a large number of infants, presumably the victims of this cruel custom. Beneath the Spartans themselves were the Helots, the state slave class, the descendants of the city’s original inhabitants whom the Spartans had conquered and enslaved. One day each year normal laws were suspended to allow the Spartans to treat the Helots however they liked, up to and including murder. In its militarism, enslavement, eugenics and racism it very much resembles the Nazis and their horrific Third Reich.

One of the internet news organisations a few years ago made a documentary about the Golden Dawn. They interviewed the Egyptian fishermen and other extra-European immigrants, who’d been attacked by them. I don’t doubt that the austerity imposed on Greece by the EU contributed to the organisation’s rise. We were taught at in Geography at school, when we studied the Third World as part of the ‘A’ Level course, that extreme poverty leads to political extremism and racial and ethnic conflict as different groups fight over resources. Apart from attacking immigrants themselves, the Golden Dawn also attacked and tore down their stalls in the local markets. They also gave out food parcels, but only to ethnic Greeks. It’s excellent that the organisation and the murderous thugs running it have been successfully prosecuted.

Zelo Street put up a very good piece about the Golden Dawn’s conviction, pointing out that it poses something of an embarrassment for the Spectator, its editor, Fraser Nelson, and board chairman Andrew Neil. Because the magazine, itself heading rapidly towards the far right, published a piece by Greek playboy and jailbird, Taki, praising the Nazis. Way back in 2013 Takis had written in his column that

Golden Dawn came into being because of PC, poor Greeks at times getting fewer benefits than African illegal immigrants. Then GD became very popular with certain poor Greeks while it defended them from being mugged by Albanian criminals and drug dealers, and for safeguarding older folk after bank withdrawals”.

He also claimed that they weren’t Nazis, but just good, patriotic Greek boys who were just rough. No, I think it’s quite clear they really were Nazis. And murder and violent assault goes far beyond being a little rough.

When people complained about Taki’s article, Nelson responded by saying

Our readers like diversity and well-written pieces that they disagree with. We have no party line”. This prompted Sunny Hundal to ask if they had any limits at all. Could they write pieces praising Hitler? Well, they haven’t so far, but Taki did write another piece stating that the real heroes of D-Day were the German soldiers, who fought to the death against overwhelming numbers. This is particularly remarkable considering the brutality and atrocities committed by the Italian Fascists and the Nazis during their occupation of Greece. Nelson defended this piece by arguing that “People like reading well-argued pieces with which they might disagree”. Well, you wonder. You wonder if the problem is that actually, at least part of the Speccie’s readership do agree.

The Street wondered how Nelson can defend publishing such stuff praising the Golden Dawn and excusing their violence, while claiming any complaints about it simply came from the PC brigade and invoking free speech. The Street concluded

‘After the verdicts were handed down in Athens today, Fraser Nelson should have stopped and thought. And then he should have resigned his post. But he won’t.

Because that would require principle. And he hasn’t got any. I’ll just leave that one there.’

Well, yes. It should at least have given Nelson pause. But it won’t stop him. He’s been publishing Taki for years, despite frequent complaints about his anti-Semitism. And doubtless Nelson will continue printing pieces by him. The Spectator’s a Tory magazines, and the publication of such pieces by Taki suggests that many of the rag’s readers have the same attitude towards Blacks, Muslims and Jews as those the blogger Jacobsmates found on internet sites for supporters of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson.

But remember, there’s supposed to be no problem with racism and anti-Semitism in the Tory party, who deal with it promptly, unlike Labour.

On subaltern horrors, Borges, and the Natural History of an Idea

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/10/2020 - 3:22am in


art, death

One of the habits of the mind is the invention of horrible imaginings. The mind has invented Hell, it has invented predestination to Hell, it has imagined the Platonic ideas, the chimera, the sphinx, abnormal transfinite numbers (whose parts are no smaller than the whole), masks, mirrors, operas, the teratological Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the unresolvable Ghost, articulated into a single organism .... I have tried to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wildernesses of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god.--Borges (1939) The Total Library.

I have quoted the concluding paragraph of "The Total Library," which is the forgotten sibling of Borges' more celebrated (and slightly younger) "The Library of Babel" although it shares some underlying insights. The Total Library is an articulating of the thesis that "the fancy or the imagination or the utopia of the Total Library has certain characteristics that are easily confused with virtues." That we recognize the name of the story in the sentence describing the utopia of the total library alerts us that use and mention, and even baptistic designation intermingle on macro and micro level, which is a feature of the story, not a bug. 

The main narrative, such as it is, of The Total Library, is a history of ideas in Lovejoy's specific sense: an idea is treated as an isolated cultural unit with a clear natural history ("Between Democritus of Abdera and Fechner of Leipzig flow-heavily laden-almost twenty-four centuries of European history"). The most familiar token, Dennett calls it proverbial, of the "typographical image" whose natural history is recounted is Huxley's claim that "half dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British Museum."

Inscribed in this narrative in the history of ideas, is a report on the "polemic" between the system of chance or necessity and the system of divinely organized order. This polemic is decided in favor of Democritus (the proponent of the system of chance). 

As an aside, Borges treats Cicero (not his character) as refuted. But Cicero had been introduced not as a proponent of the system of divine order, but as an ironic skeptic. In other words, Borges treats the rise of Darwinism (who is represented by Huxley) and Logic (Carroll) not, altogether without wisdom, as a refutation of the system of divine order, but rather as a defeat of ironic skepticism. This is, of course, not just an aside because one can understand Borges' story as the revenge, or eternal return, of ironic skepticism (which competes with a more successful skepticism familiar from the extension of the holographic principle to a holographic universe.)

The version told by one of Cicero's characters, and now I quote Borges, goes like this:

 I do not marvel that there should be anyone who can persuade him-self that certain solid and individual bodies are pulled along by the force of gravity, and that the fortuitous collision of those particles produces this beautiful world that we see. He who considers this possible will also be able to believe that if innumerable characters of gold, each representing one of the twenty-one letters of the alphabet, were thrown together onto the ground, they might produce the Annals of Ennius. I doubt whether chance could possibly create even a single verse to read.

Because of the familiarity of Huxley's token of this image in recurring debates over Darwinism, we might overlook that in Cicero the image is used to undermine an epicurean cosmogony (recall yesterday's post on Newton)--the existence of species is a mere subset of this. This cosmogony held that the structure we encounter is the product of the collision of atoms, which have an innate gravity, subject, as we learn from Lucretius and Cicero, to random swerves.

I don't mean to suggest that Cicero or Huxley are idiosyncratic to connect cosmogony to the origin of species. As I noted a few weeks ago, in the revised preface to his Bridgewater Treatise, Whewell trots out Cicero's sibling argument -- which I have dubbed 'Posidonian,' which is just before the passage recounted by Borges' narration  -- in response to Darwin's Origin (as I learned from David Haig). And while Whewell treats the nebular hypothesis as plausible, he does not think it is sufficiently explanatory about the origin of the order it exhibits.

But rather than returning to that material, my eye stops at Borges' two-fold claim that Swift's "Trivial Essay on the Faculties of the Soul," (i) is a "museum of commonplaces," and (ii) itself a token of this idea. Part of the joke here is that the correct title of Swift's essay is "A Tritical Essay upon the Faculties of the Mind."  "Tritical" being (now archaic) "trite" or "hackneyed." And in the joke Borges' discerns that a single typographic mistake can be memetically or fitness enhancing.

And when we turn to Swift we find indeed a museum of commonplaces, which presents us not so much with a natural history of the typographic idea, but with a philosophical history, which as the title already suggests, itself a polemic against (ahh) then recent philosophy (and the commitments of an Enlightenment age: democracy, science, etc.).

And lurking in the essay is not so much the observation that democracy is vulnerable to demagoguery, which is indeed trite, but rather the more philanthropic point that would have been evident to Borges' initial readers -- that democratic theorists fail to grasp the true nature of the best kind of democratic public speech. This nature is not truth-telling (as democrats deceives themselves) nor flattery (as the the critics of democracy claim), but rather the art of hiding its artfulness ("in oratory the greatest Art is to hide Art.")

There is no better way to hide artfulness if the surface is random characters which "chance would organize and which would eliminate intelligence." And this would be the case "for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings."

It is tempting to domesticate the thought by saying 'it's fiction' or 'science fiction'. But in the refutation of Cicero  the ground from which to deny we inhabit the subaltern horror became unstable, even a trapdoor.



Unextractable Insights of Literature and the Arts

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/10/2020 - 3:03am in

“There appears to be no room within ethics for humanistic thinking or artistic expression as such, and this represents a massive and practically catastrophic contraction of ethics.”

[detail of cut paper illustration by Eiko Ojala]

In an interview at 3:16AM, philosopher Alice Crary (New School) discusses how conceptions of objectivity function in typical treatments of ethics to constrain what philosophers can learn from some other humanities disciplines, literature, and the arts.

She says:

A great deal of my work has been devoted to investigating the grip on the contemporary philosophical imagination of conceptions of objectivity—of the sorts operative in these conversations about moral realism—that take the expulsion of everything subjective as their hallmarks. I have repeatedly argued that restrictions these conceptions impose on what kinds of things count as objective are not justified by the ultimately weak considerations adduced in the conceptions’ favor. I have tried to show not only that we should reject the restrictions but also that doing so is urgent because necessary for getting morally and politically salient aspects of our lives into view…

 I attack the view—which I describe as narrowly rational—that it is in theory possible to grasp any real connection of thought from an abstract, ethically neutral vantage point. I do so to show that there are ethically decisive considerations that this view leaves us unequipped to recognize, and I take an interest in work in the different humanities, as well as in literature and the other arts, because such work affords resources for uncovering things inaccessible to an abstract gaze.

Humanistic and artistic productions characteristically lead us to consider aspects of the world from particular, ethically charged perspectives. Anyone operating in a narrowly rational logical space effectively imposes severe constraints on how such productions can contribute to understanding. To be sure, moral philosophers routinely make use of material from, say, poems, novels, historical narratives and films. But, insofar as they respect narrowly rational constraints, they are obliged to regard whatever they cull from these works as available to thought independently of any evaluative perspectives the works invite us to adopt. They cannot help but take any insights with which they credit the works to be extractable in the sense of being there independently of aesthetic qualities in virtue of which the works inculcate these perspectives. The upshot is that there appears to be no room within ethics for humanistic thinking or artistic expression as such, and this represents a massive and practically catastrophic contraction of ethics. Within my ethical writings, alongside showing that this contraction is philosophically unjustifiable, I bring out how it is morally disastrous—among other things, by identifying harms to human beings and animals that it leaves us incapable of registering.

You can read the whole interview here. Discussion welcome.

The post Unextractable Insights of Literature and the Arts appeared first on Daily Nous.


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 03/10/2020 - 5:20am in

That dog – called aptly Dog – has a status that’s uncertain. He was dumped two years ago at the homeplace of a neighbor some few hundred yards away. Because the neighbor neither ran him off nor shot him, Dog counts in the calculus round here as belonging to that man. Dog accedes to this some days and patrols the yard around the neighbor’s trailer, but he is more usually just a rambling presence, a creature mysterious in his ways and unaccountable to any. Some days no one sees him, some days he never leaves our porch. Most days, he likes some petting, but some days, not – he once showed up carrying a slice a pizza and kept his distance lest I try to steal it. One day he cornered an armadillo only to sniff it with disdain and walk away. On another he tortured a groundhog, mortally wounding it but declining to finish what he started. I then went for my rifle and did the work he wouldn’t. Every night they’re near and howling, he answers the coyotes with his voice – in this at least, Dog is reliable. I suspect he is unsure if he wants to count himself as feral or as tamed. He is, in short, about what someone might expect from a dog that has learned Zhuangzi.--Amy Olberding

In order to save my marriage, and to get some research done, I rented a small office -- yeah don't cry for me -- in a different part of town a few weeks ago. I go there every day, and when I am not needed in zoom meetings, I work on my Newton's Metaphysics manuscript. The tube runs on a frequent schedule and the ride is under fifteen minutes.  Most of the time it's very easy to social distance inside the carriages. 

I found an excellent espresso bar a seven minute walk from my new office in the heart of Fitzrovia. It's one stop on the tube, but because the weather has been so nice, as it has been this whole pandemic year, it's a lovely amble through the back streets of the neighborhood. I enjoy the blue plaques with the names of former (mostly nineteenth century) prime ministers and (mostly twentieth century) authors and social reformers. Sometimes I first get a wrap at a very fine middle eastern hole in the wall on Goodge street.

On Tuesday, at my favorite espresso bar I noticed he had no sweets on offer. When I asked about the lack of brownies, the barista/owner mentioned that his supplier had stopped delivering because his orders fell below the minimum. I quietly wondered whether there were payment issues. I said that must cut into your profit margins. Behind his face mask I guessed a dry smile, because I was told that he just broke even. Emboldened by the small talk, I asked the barista whether the landlord had offered a discount. Indeed he had, 50%. But this had been declined because it was supposed to be added to next year's rent. The purpose behind this offer struck me as a bit dubious, too. I wondered if his rolex was a fake.

I mentioned the story about the brownies to the building manager on the way back. In response she told me the Pret around the corner had stopped selling her favorite tuna mayo sandwiches. She had complained to the store-manager, who informed her they stopped selling it because too few people were coming into the store. 

Anyway, today, i walked through the rain, to find the espresso bar closed. (This will not have surprised you, my perceptive reader.) I looked around and suddenly I realized the street was near empty. I checked my watch (no, not a rolex). It was 3:15pm. On the way back to my office I started counting closed bars and shops. Many were, in fact, boarded up; I stopped at two dozen. I found a bakery near Warren St. with decent espresso. On my way back to the office, on Euston Road, I registered the half a dozen homeless people hiding in front of a (closed) furniture store.

One of my son's favorite classmates' step-dads drives a real London black cab. It has the largest sky roof I have ever seen in a taxi. Anyway, recently he told me (the cabbie, not the son) that he was doing one third the business he did last year. This is no surprise: London is a city that thrives on international travel (tourism and business), and wealthy expats for a lot of its traffic.

A few weeks ago the official unemployment rate in the UK was 4,1% (that was up  to July). All kinds of temporary measures have ended since then. In August 2020 "the number of employees in the UK on payrolls was down around 695,000 compared with March 2020." It's getting worse. 

Let me change tack for a second. 

A few novelists -- Arnon Grunberg, Zadie Smith, and Niña Weijers -- tell the story of my social habitat especially well. (I leave you to guess who have satirized me effectively,) But during this pandemic I have been drawn to Amy Olberding and her epic Ozark Stoics. While I once commented on one of her papers, and am proud she has guest-blogged for me, I have never met Olberding. But as my life has closed in on itself, I have grown needy of her story-telling. 

I imagine her in her pick-up truck in the parking lot of a giant Wallmart, stealing wifi; after she has responded to student emails, and has uploaded her lecture, she writes up her intellectual diaries, with her rifle and her laptop on her lap. One of my favorite passages is this one:

The region around our farm is a lacework of gravel roads that trace through hill country, and what happens when families like ours just can’t keep it all going is told everywhere upon these roads.  Abandoned farmhouses sit in fields given over to elaborate beef cattle operations held by wealthy ranchers who buy up old places when a family can no longer keep them.  In these places, the fencing is bright and taut, well maintained but by people who live elsewhere.  The tarpaper and rock homes that once sheltered families working the land become just bits of a landscape, too much trouble to tear down when the elements will eventually do the work for you.  Some old homeplaces don’t even have the care of wealthy ranchers but instead sit nested in trees that have come up since the families left, the houses now effectively forested.  Bereft of the people who kept the houses whole, they become home to all manner of wildlife, though given the area, some also come to host meth cookers.  But the most haunted examples, I find, are the old family farms where no house at all still sits.  On spring’s arrival they emerge like ghosts across the landscape, as vast armies of yellow daffodils arise to tell of what once was.  The daffodils stand in fragile, temporary signal, their patterns marking out where a house once stood – now lining a path where no path sits or surrounding where a porch once stood.  The daffodils stubbornly outlast the ones who planted them and abide as the only sign of what was once a homeplace. 

Without thinking, I turn left to the tube station. It's slightly longer that way in the shadow of the BT tower. On the sidewalk I evade two boys  on their electric step-scooters who seemed indifferent to the possibility of running me over. It's pouring.

It's been a decade since Lehman. I see myself reflected in the window of another abandoned shop. I am clean-shaven today; not quite an old man yet, but when I look around I see an older man shuffling in a Zimmer-frame. He is drenched. I know I see the dreary future staring at me. He smiles. It's the first maskless smile from a random stranger in months.

As I walk to the entry of the station, all I can think of are those vast armies of yellow daffodils filling Fitzroy Square.

Government abandons the arts: what’s to be done?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 01/10/2020 - 3:03am in


art, Capitalism

In Cathy Wilcox’s cartoon for the Age and Sydney Morning Herald of 17 July  2020, students are depicted leaving a boarded-up university building and queuing for information at the Job Trainer tent, where a young man is being asked: ‘Have you thought of becoming a celebrity handyman?’ The scene reflects a government that champions trades and has abandoned support for any local culture other than reality television.

The erasure of culture from the national agenda during the current Coalition government is striking. In Canberra, the arts office is now buried under bitumen, somewhere down the corridors of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. Government expenditure on cultural activity has dropped by at least 5 per cent since 2007. By contrast, the aim of 2 per cent GDP of the budget for defence has projected an increase of 6.2 per cent in real terms. And now there is the punitive increase in fees for undergraduate humanities courses, which recently led to a $12 million cut to the Arts Faculty at the University of Melbourne.

While this has met fierce opposition from the arts sector, it is unlikely to cause outrage in the electorate. There has been a 25 per cent decline in public support for public arts funding over the past decade. We need some analysis of why this is so.

The clerisy

Reactionary though it may be, there is something to learn from how the Right approaches this. Voices such as that of Joel Krotkin on platforms like Quillette (founded by an Australian journalist) present the knowledge class as a ‘clerisy’. This class of academics, North Atlantic journalists and tweeters are seen to support the technocratic elites in a neo-feudal alignment based on a priestly surveillance of liberal values at the expense of workers’ concerns. While not necessarily celebrating Trump, this critique gives credence to his electoral success. If Trump loses the election, this critique of neo-feudalism is likely to focus on the vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, a Californian with the strong support of Silicon Valley.

Though Australia does not have technology elites, US-based political tribalism has a parallel here in the growing insularity of art forms. The cultural field increasingly contains separate bubbles of practitioners making work for each other within different forms. So in relation to poetry, whereas in the past there were national laureates like Judith Wright, the audience for verse now seems increasingly specialist, constituted by other poets.


This insularity became institutionalised in 2013 with the changes to assessment panels at the Australia Council. Art-form boards were replaced by panels of peers.

I’m not claiming that this is a corrupt process. It’s been necessitated partly by funding cuts and a call to channel maximum funds to arts workers. I’ve been a peer on a couple of panels and have witnessed an entirely honourable process, with strict adherence to conflict-of-interest protocols. But it’s hard to argue for consideration of public value against direct benefits to the artist, even if that artist is located overseas making work for a foreign audience. Without an independent board, there is no clear focus for strategic audience engagement. During lockdown, the Australia Council offered marketing webinars using the same techniques as would apply to any other commodity.

In the visual arts, I’ve been frequenting contemporary art exhibitions over the years and have seen the growingly esoteric nature of gallery spaces unwilling to engage with audiences outside the personal networks of the artists. Much video performance seems self-obsessed and without any enduring value beyond a frisson of creative freedom.


It’s worth rethinking ‘creative freedom’. The knowledge class has been lauded as a vanguard of liberalisation and development. Richard Florida heralded the arrival of ‘creatives’, who consist of a mix of artists and design and media professionals. Following on from the radical politics of university students, this class cultivates a responsible awareness of other interests, including colonised peoples, non-binary genders and non-humans.

But this plurality of interests often retreats from social justice as a collective endeavour. Recently, Thomas Piketty critiqued those who focus on cultural diversity rather than progressive taxation:

…western democracies are now dominated by two rival elites, reflected in many two-party electoral systems: a financial elite (or ‘merchant right’) that favours open markets, and an educational elite (or ‘Brahmin left’) that stands for cultural diversity, but has lost faith in progressive taxation as a basis for social justice. With these as the principal democratic options, nativist parties prosper, opposing educational and economic inequality, but only on the basis of tighter national borders. There is a vacancy for parties willing to defend internationalism and redistribution simultaneously.

Also from the left corner, Asad Haider in Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump invoked Malcolm X in championing collective struggle above sectional politics: ‘The framework of identity reduces politics to who you are as an individual and to gaining recognition as an individual, rather than your membership in a collectivity and the collective struggle against an oppressive social structure’.

I would slightly disagree: there are forms of solidarity in identity politics that transcend the individual, such as diversity initiatives now prevalent in institutions and corporations. Nonetheless, these do not cohere around a general ideology of liberation as might be found in socialism.

Locally, the swap of political allegiance between tradies to the right and professionals to the left has become a refrain of Guy Rundle’s Crikey columns. In his overview of the first twenty years of the millennium, Rundle opined that the knowledge class:

had become blind to the degree that it was an advancement of their own knowledge class interests, disguised as the old general interest of humanity that the socialist movement was once held to represent.

Regardless of the ideals upheld by the knowledge class, it cannot be sustained without some engagement with the majority. This needn’t involve the kind of compromise associated with arguing the economic case for the creative industry. But it must come with some reform to its more institutional forms. The year-long lockdown offers a rare window to consider how the knowledge class might become more relevant.


We hear much talk of ‘rewilding’ as a solution to current dilemmas. This goes beyond urban legends of dolphins in the canals of Venice. In the Guardian, Suzanne Moore used the phrase to resist the reflex goal of returning to normal life: ‘Does normal mean stadium tours by big bands with ticket prices in three figures?’ These questions are timely, but essentially the article is about more state support for public art rather than any review of how art is produced.

Those structures themselves may need changing. Arts development is often presumed to be a matter of increasing formalisation. Arts become an ‘industry’ that fights for the interests of its ‘sector’. The boards of arts organisations take an increasingly corporate interest in ‘compliance’ ‘risk management’ and ‘brand value’.

The industrial mindset is an inevitable response to the pressures of a growing population. But left to its own devices, it can become a machine with little sign of organic artistic life. Rather than an organic ‘culture’ with its own shared meanings, the arts ‘industry’ is an aggregate of individual interests.

The retreat of the market during lockdown has exposed the absence of culture. I was struck recently in an Oxfam Zoom meeting with artisan organisations who spoke of the devastating loss to exports. Representatives from Kenya and the Philippines admitted that the only market for their crafts today was export and foreign tourists. For locals themselves, craft is often seen as a backward and precarious activity by contrast with office work in the city. With a Midas touch, the practice of outsourcing culture seems to have resulted in a mirror of Western consumerism. Why should these traditional crafts depend on foreign capital? Wasn’t there a time when such a culture could flourish in far poorer conditions than those of today?

Lockdown has seen some serious examination of this arrangement. I’ve been interested to follow the many YouTube, Zoom and LinkedIn discussions featuring Tyson Yunkaporta. His book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Will Save the World wilfully bypasses academic conventions. Rather than footnotes, Yunkaporta ties his argument to a series of weapons that he has carved, which he occasionally brandishes to ground his ideas.

With a Buddha-like equanimity, Yunkapora speaks to a broad cross-section of people about the illusions of Western modernity. His use of the ngal—‘us-two’—pronoun eschews any role for the symbolic as a formalised structure of meaning. There are no ‘isms’ for a reader to extract, though in his conversations he sometimes invokes systems theory, particularly what’s popularly known as ‘Game B’.

Yunkaporta is one of the most engaging expressions of the ‘rewilding’ Zeitgeist. This involves zooming out from the civilising mission of the arts to the extractive world system it has come to serve. We are yet to see what will emerge once this particular enzyme has loosened up our cultural structures.

Given the apocalyptic vision outlined by Justin Clemens in Arena Quarterly, it’s tempting to be overwhelmed by pessimism. We should, rather, be provoked to find what Antonio Gramsci advocates as an ‘optimism of the will’.


Rewilding may take different artistic forms, such as turning suburban streets into galleries or performing classical music in a bar. As an advocate for the crafts, I’ve struggled against the demeaning representations of them, involving satire of hipsters or lockdown hobbies. In the current predicament, the role of crafts goes beyond nostalgia.

The craft world bridges studio and workshop. It is a means not just of representing the world as a mirror but also of introducing a meaningful object into everyday life. You usually find craft in the gallery shop, where objects are taken home or bought as gifts. While it is regularly overlooked as a serious artistic pursuit, craft does produce goods that continue to give value to everyday life.

Take, for example, Melbourne ceramicist Vipoo Srivilasa, who tirelessly creates projects that work with communities, such as the Monster project to creatively engage production-line workers in a Thai ceramics factory.

The lower cost of living is luring many artists to small country towns, where there is greater potential to work outside the bubble, as in the artist residency in the tiny northern Victorian town of Boorhaman. As part of a ‘slow art’, Chaco Kato used an accessible technique like knotting to bring locals together, even engaging with a local rope factory.

This doesn’t have to be parochial. Through the Crosshatched project, Tallarook potter Sandra Bowkett regularly hosts Indian potters who produce chai cups and round mudka water vessels for a local market.

There is also promise in local businesses, such as Wonderpants in Castlemaine, that offer useful products that engage a loyal following. This may not be considered ‘creative’, but it does imbue the product with meaning and connection. The sudden need for masks, combined with isolation from global supply chains, has been a catalyst for the repurposing of textile studios into production workshops. Historical moments like the Arts and Crafts movement and Bauhaus showed how creativity can be applied to objects that combine usefulness and social change.

The Japanese platform One Village One Product offers a model of rejuvenation through specialisation. The Vietnamese have now taken up this model to become an international national movement. For the time being, it is important to nurture local markets for useful products that add meaning to people’s lives.

Back to the garden

In the end, we have to do something. National politics seem set on a course of cultural destruction, evoking the Taliban in results if not in means. With an exclusive focus on retail kitchen politics, anything that conflicts with the ideology of short-term self-interest will be starved of support. The universities have played a critical role in creative arts, providing salaries for its leading practitioners and scholarships for others. During the coalition government, this field is likely to decline along with state funding. Resources for the Australia Council and the ABC are likely to be cut even further in upcoming budgets, and states will be hard-pressed to sustain current levels of support.

This is not to deny the need for the arts as a critical mirror on our world. Their institutions are essential for long-term cultural memory. But it’s important to renew their purpose by occasionally going wild, venturing beyond the familiar.

The philanthropic sector has shown impressive leadership here. The report by arts thinktank A New Approach A View from Middle Australia replaces the stock ‘creative industry’ with ‘arts and culture’, reflecting lived experience. In May this year, Philanthropy Australia’s Arts Funders network offered 1,400 artists $1000 each, rather than the usual winner takes all approach of grant funding.

The recent death of artist’s artist John Nixon evoked memories of art as a vocation. I remember visiting his acolytes at the Prahran Store 5 Gallery, drawn to the intensity of their aesthetic mission. Though Nixon’s authority emerged from outside the system, the Guardian’s obituary reverted to the corporate language of the arts: ‘Australian arts industry pays tribute…’.

The arts have been built on a modernist critique of traditional authority. But there comes a time when the arts themselves must be rebuilt—a time when we must, as Milton wrote, ‘reform the Reformation’.

The industry is dead. Long live the industry!

How Does the Ban on Teaching Anti-Capitalist and Extremist Materials Affect Mainstream Textbooks?

Yesterday, Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state for education, issued his departments guideline informing schools what they could not teach. This included materials from organisations determined to end capitalism, as well as anti-Semitic material, opposition to freedom of speech and which approves of illegal activity. The Labour Party’s John McDonnell pointed out that this would mean that it’s now illegal to teach large sections of British history and particularly that of the Labour Party, trade unions and socialism, because all these organisations at different times advocated the end of capitalism. He is, of course, right. In 1945 or thereabouts, for example, the Labour Party published an edition of the Communist Manifesto. He concluded

“This is another step in the culture war and this drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace and should worry anyone who believes that democracy requires freedom of speech and an educated populace.”

The economist and former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varousfakis, who has also written a book, The Crisis of Capitalism, also commented this guidance showed how easy it was for a country to lose itself and slip surreptitiously into totalitarianism. He said

“Imagine an educational system that banned schools from enlisting into their curricula teaching resources dedicated to the writings of British writers like William Morris, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Paine even. Well, you don’t have to. Boris Johnson’s government has just instructed schools to do exactly that.”

Quite. I wonder how the ban affects even mainstream textbooks, which included anti-capitalist or other extremist literature. For example there are any number of readers and anthologies of various political or historical writings published by perfectly mainstream publishers for school and university students. Such as the one below, Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactions to ‘Political Economy’, edited by Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1986). This collects a variety of writings authors such as John Francis Bray, Thomas Carlyle, Marx and Engels, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hill Green, William Morris and George Bernard Shaw. These texts obviously document and illustrate the reactions to the rise of economics as an academic subject in the 19th century, and several of the authors are titans of 19th century British culture, literature and political philosophy, like the art critic Ruskin, the socialist, writer and artist, William Morris, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the liberal political philosophers John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hill Green, and Matthew Arnold, the headmast of Rugby, the author of Culture and Anarchy. This is quite apart from Marx and Engels and John Francis Bray, who was a socialist and follower of Robert Owen. Carlyle’s now largely forgotten, but he was a philosopher and historian who was massively influential in his day.

Clearly this is an entirely respectable text from a very respectable publisher for history students. But, thanks to the government’s new guidelines, you could well ask if it’s now illegal to teach it in schools, thanks to its anti-capitalist contents.

The same question also applies to very respectable histories by respectable, mainstream historians and political scientists, of extremist movements and ideologies like Fascism, Nazism, Communism and anarchism. For example, one of the books I used while studying the rise of Nazism at college was D.G. Williamson’s The Third Reich (Harlow: Longman 1982). It’s an excellent little book published as part of their Seminar Studies in History range. These are short histories of various periods in history from King John and the Magna Carta to the origins of the Second World and the Third Reich, which include extracts from texts from the period illustrating particularly aspects and events. Williamson’s book is a comprehensive history of the Nazi regime, and so includes extracts from Nazi documents like Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Goebbel’s diaries and as well as eyewitness account of Nazi war crimes and individual acts of heroism and resistance. It presents an objective account of Hitler’s tyranny including its horrors and atrocities. There is absolutely no way it, nor other books like it, could remotely be considered pro-Nazi or presenting any kind of positive assessment of Hitler’s regime.

But if schools are now forbidden from teaching anti-capitalist, anti-Semitic, racist and anti-democratic material, does this mean that they are also forbidden from using books like Williamson’s, which include the writings of the Nazis themselves to show the real nature of the regime and the motivations of the men behind it. I hope not, and Owen Jones in his tweet attacking the new guidelines quotes them. From this, it should be possible to make a distinction between texts produced by extremist organisations and extracts from them in mainstream histories or editions from mainstream publishers. According to Jones’ tweet, the guidelines state

Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances, include, but are not limited to

  1. a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism or end free and fair elections.

2. opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, or freedom of religion and conscience.

3. the use or endorsement of racist, including anti-Semitic language or communications.

4. the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity.

5. a failure to condemn illegal activities in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people and property.

Responding to Jones’ tweet, Jessica Simor QC asks this very pertinent question

Do the fourth and fifth bullet points mean that schools should not accept Government money?

Good point.

I also have no doubt that the vast majority are going to be extremely careful about which organisation’s materials they use because of the danger of using extremist or otherwise inappropriate material.

But I can also how sometimes it may also be necessary for schools to use such materials in order to criticise them and educate their pupils about their dangers. For example, in the 1980s the BNP or NF tried to appeal to schoolchildren by launching a comic. Other extremists have also turned up at the school gates on occasion. When I was at school in Bristol during the ’81/2 race riots, a White agitator with a beard like Karl Marx’s turned up outside the school entrance with a megaphone trying to get the kids to join in. We ignored him and the headmaster next day in assembly said very clearly that any child who did join the rioting would be expelled.

Nazis are also known for lying and deliberately distorting history. If some Nazi group, for example, produced a pamphlet aimed at schoolchildren and teachers found it being passed around the playground one of the actions they could take, as well as simply banning it and punishing any kid who tried to promote it, might be for a suitably qualified teacher to go through it, pointing out the deliberate lies. When Hitler himself seized power, one Austrian university lecturer embarrassed the fuhrer by showing his students how Hitler took his ideas from the cheap and grubby neo-Pagan literature published in the back streets of Vienna. One of these pamphlets claimed that the ancient Aryans had possessed radio-electric organs that gave them superpowers like telepathy. I think it was highly unlikely that anyone listening to this professor’s lectures on Hitler ever came away with the idea that Hitler had some deep grasp of the essential forces of human biology and and natural selection.

I see absolutely no point to this legislation whatsoever. Teachers, parents and educators are already careful about what is taught in schools. In the past few years most incidents of this type have come from fundamentalist religious schools. These have mostly been Muslim schools, which have been caught teaching their students to hate Christians, Jews and non-Muslims, but there was also a Jewish school which became the centre of controversy for its opposition to homosexuality. In the 1980s Thatcher and the right-wing press ran scare stories about Communist teachers indoctrinating students with evil subversive subjects like peace studies. I am not aware that anyone with extreme left-wing, Communist or Trotskite views has been trying to indoctrinate children. But there are concerns about Black Lives Matter, which I have heard is a Marxist organisation. If that is the case, then the guidelines seem to be an attempt to ban the use of their materials. BLM did produce materials for a week of action in schools, which was thoroughly critiqued by Sargon of Gasbag, aka Carl Benjamin, the sage of Swindon and the man who broke UKIP. Sargon has extreme right-wing Conservative views himself, though I honestly don’t believe that he is genuinely racist and his criticisms of the BLM school material was reasonable. Williamson’s guidelines look like a badly thought out attempt to stop them being used without causing controversy by tackling the organisation’s anti-racism or its critique of White society.

But it also marks the growing intolerance of the Tories themselves and their determination that schools should be used for the inculcation of their own doctrines, rather than objective teaching that allows children to come to their own. Way back in the 1980s Thatcher tried to purge the universities of Marxists by passing legislation making it illegal for them to hold posts in higher education. They got round it by making a subtle distinction: they claimed to be Marxian rather than Marxist. By which they argued that they had Marxist culture, but weren’t actually Marxists. It’s a legal sleight of hand, but it allowed them to retain their teaching posts.

These new guidelines look like an extension of such previous legislation in order to preserve capitalism from any kind of thorough critique. Even when, as the peeps Mike quotes in his article, show very clearly that it is massively failing in front of our eyes.

Schools are now for indoctrination, not education, as teaching of non-capitalist ideology is forbidden

Bristol’s Colston Hall Changes Name to Bristol Beacon

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/09/2020 - 6:41pm in

My fair home city of Bristol was in the news yesterday. One of its premier music venues, the Colston Hall, is changing its name. This is obviously a consequence of the pulling down of Colston’s statue on the town centre not far from the Hall a month or so ago by Black Lives Matter activists. The Hall’s been debating for a long time whether or not to change its name, and the decision has been hastened as it and other places try to distance themselves from the slaver and his legacy. Colston Tower, an office block on or near the centre, is also being renamed. And there was mention on the news a little while ago that Colston Girls’ school was also considering changing its name.

The item I saw about this on the national news showed one of the journos walking along Pero’s Bridge. It’s an eccentric structure crossing Bristol’s docks, as it has two horn-like structures either side of it at one point. It takes its name from one of the few slaves in the city, whose name is actually known. Then there was a brief interview with Dr. Edson Burnett, one of the leading historians of the Bristol slave trade. He said that the some people were afraid that the renaming of some of landmarks was an attack on history and an attempt to rewrite, but instead it was an attempt to uncover other histories that had been hidden or neglected.

He’s right, and David Olusoga was also correct when he pointed out in an article in the Radio Times the other week that none of the other historic statues in the area were attacked when the BLM protestors took down Colston’s and threw it in the docks. However, it still needs to be pointed out over and over again that Bristol’s involvement with the slave trade has never been covered up. It was mentioned in history textbooks for the city’s schoolchildren. Pero’s Bridge was put up in the 1990s, as was an exhibition, ‘A Respectable Trade’, at the City Museum and Art Gallery, and there is a gallery on it in Bristol’s M Shed.

As for the Colston Hall’s change of name, I don’t think it’ll make any difference. The debate has been going on for some time now, as have demands to have Colston’s statue removed. They were controversial, but now they’ve happened I don’t think it’ll make much difference. I think most Bristolians will simply shrug and get on with better things to do and think about.

And the Bristol Beacon is a great name for one of the city’s most historic and outstanding concert halls.