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Lord of the Rings and structural Orientalism

On first reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, at the age of nine, I loved it unquestioningly and, once finished, immediately began reading it again. Later, in high school English, I wrote about it as an epic synthesis of myth, overwhelmingly sourced from the peoples who were later themselves synthesised into Englishness: Saxons, Danish, Scandinavians, Normans, and so on. I also became uncomfortable with the largely simple good-versus-evil binary of the text, and the axiomic irredemability of Tolkien’s Orkish “race”.

There is much to evoke deep discomfort about Lord of the Rings. Many writers have found the racialised depictions of Orcs, Haradrim and Easterlings disturbing, especially their juxtaposition with the idealised, hyper-white beauty of Tolkien’s elves.

Yet little has been written about the structure of the Lord of the Rings. It is fairly well known that Tolkien re-worked many myths in the compiling of his “legendarium”; most notably, that of Turin Turambar from the Norse Sigurd and the Finnish Kulervo. Yet Tolkien did not restrict his borrowing and reworking to English and Norse myth.

The death of Boromir and the Song of Roland: Sounding the Horn

The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving work of French literature, records Charlemagne’s victory over Muslim rulers in Spain; the song itself alters the historical betrayal of Charlemagne by his Basque allies into betrayal by one man and the death of Roland at the hand of “Saracens”.

Transfigured by Tolkien, the betrayal is instead that of Sauruman, whose army of Orcs comes upon Boromir and the two hobbits. Like Roland, Boromir bears a great horn; like Roland, he is massively outnumbered and is overcome; like Roland, his allies do not reach him in time, and find only dead bodies.

Curiously, the name of Roland’s horn, Oliphant, is transfigured again by Tolkien into the name of the gigantic elephants of the far South; Boromir’s horn is simply the Horn of Gondor (Gondor’s real world namesake, Gondar, was part of Christendom’s historic southern bastion in Ethiopia); its sounding leads to Aragorn on his first steps not East with Frodo, but West, along the path that will lead to him claiming his rightful crown.

El Cid and Gandalf: the White Riders

A rider, clad all in white and riding a white horse, returned from the dead to lead the “forces of good” to victory. Not simply the story of Gandalf, but part of the legend of El Cid, who in many tales was embalmed and tied to his horse after his death to lead his charging knights to victory against the Moors. Like Gandalf and his sword, Glamdring, El Cid also had a famous, named sword, Tizona. Like Gandalf, who selected his white horse Shadowfax from the stables of King Theoden, El Cid obtained his horse as a gift: in many versions, he chose his horse from the stables of his godfather, or was given it by a king.

What is more, film representations of both legends have striking similarities.

El Cid (1961)

Note the orientalised “Moor” at 1:11 and the “barbarous” skull-bedecked tower he stands in, the sounding of the giant gong at 1:16, the preponderance of black-cloaked “Moors”, and the barbarous-looking siege towers at 4:13.

For those who don’t want to sit through all of that, here is El Cid appearing, after death, haloed by white, and causing the “Moors” to flee in panic (6:11):

Here is Gandalf’s charge of the Orcs at Helm’s Deep, from the 2002 film:

The iconography of the “White Rider” has been embraced by European fascist groups; “White Rider” is also a 1987 album by Skrewdriver, the most prominent white power band in the world.

The Corsairs of Umbar and the Battle of Lepanto

From the victory at Helms Deep, the heroes move on to confront the traitor Sauruman and then to aid Gondor. Aragorn, driven by need, takes “the Paths of the Dead” where he holds a dead, ghostly people to their oath to Gondor. He then leads this undead army to a city in the south of Gondor, Pelargir, where the “Corsairs of Umbar” are attacking.

Who are these Corsairs? Corsair as a term originally applied to the pirates of the Barbary coast, who later fell under the dominion of the Ottoman empire. Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote, was among those enslaved by them. The Ottoman navy was defeated in 1571 at the battle of Lepanto, which assumed mythic resonance; Cervantes was also present at Lepanto, and there was badly wounded.

The Siege: Minas Tirith and Vienna

If the archetypal battle against “Corsairs” was Lepanto, the archetypal European siege was that of Vienna. Besieged by the Ottoman empire in 1529 and again in 1683, its relief marked the ascendance of European dominance of the world. Attacked from the South and East from a city historically friendly – Byzantium fell in 1453 and became the capital of the Ottoman empire – the territorial parallels with Minas Tirith under attack from its former sister-city Minas Morgul are obvious, and the battle has the same enormous significance for Gondor as the relief of Vienna was considered, by contemporaneous European writers, to have for Europe.

While one final battle is fought by Aragon in defence of Gondor, at the gates of Mordor, it takes little space in the text, and is not resolved through human action but in a sense through grace, as Gollum grabs the One Ring and plummets into Mount Doom, destroying Sauron and his empire.

The Orientalised Other

Structurally, then, we can see how Lord of the Rings, in particular the sections concerning Gondor, mirrors the perceived historical conflict between “Christendom” and “Islam”. While such a model had limited historical validity even then – it seems foolish to conflate the relatively tolerant Al-Andalus of before around 1150 with the later slave-taking, sometimes European-captained Barbary pirates; it seems as foolish to conflate the diverse, squabbling European powers which fought them – such models certainly do not function in a helpful or predictive manner now.

In his book, Orientalism, Edward Said describes the process of construction of a model of the Orient as “other” by Western scholars, in particular the ideological production of Islam as unchanging, monolithic, and antithetical to “Western values”.

While Tolkien himself explicitly argued against political or allegorical readings of his work – he intended it as a linguistic project – it is clear that many of the myths which he drew upon are certainly political and unconsciously centre conflict against a dark, evil, inhuman “other”.

Criticism of Tolkien in this vein is certainly nothing new. Michael Moorcock, in his excellent essay, stated “I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they don’t exactly argue with… white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.”

The “natural order” and Aragon’s right to rule

Aragon demonstrates his power and right to rule by being able to hold the ghosts of the Dead Men of Dunharrow to their oath to Gondor. Here Aragorn first demonstrates his sovereignty, his right to rule as part of the natural order; it is his blood claim to the crown of Gondor that the undead sense and defer to, and thus he exerts his claim over nature, that is, over the fact of death itself.

While Aragon’s myth is that of Arthur, the king returned to save the land from disaster, it is worth examining precisely who he is saving it from – a constructed “other” that only Sam ever wonders about, and at that powerlessly and wistfully:

“He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

And with that he ceases wondering, and so do we.

Hierarchy is woven through the fabric of Lord of the Rings, in a fundamental, existential sense. Aragorn deserves to rule; Samwise is happy in his place as servant; Orcs are inhuman and deserve death; Easterlings and Corsairs must be driven back and subjugated. All have their place in a “natural” order. It is only when we reconsider that natural order and consider the world less in terms of hierarchy than of systems, that the “other” becomes humanised, that eternal conflict can end.

Patterns in myth and mythical patterns

There is much that I still find profoundly moving about Lord of the Rings. Yearning for a deep and unknowable past is, after all, an inescapable characteristic of advancing capitalism which is forever more deeply invading the structures of everyday life. Yet it also tells of time flowing inevitably onwards, and that the past is inevitably left behind. I must now admit that much of my own uncritical enjoyment of Lord of the Rings has flowed from my own white privilege.

If the unsatisfactory paradigm of “Islam” and “Christendom” as competing power blocs ever had validity, it was from a time when the power of each was roughly equal. This is certainly no longer the case now. The First World War that so affected Tolkien led to the creation of Iraq, and when ongoing Western hegemony dictated that it be invaded in 2003 this led to around a million excess deaths. US-led war with Iran now seems plausible, despite the immense power disparity. All the while, economic inequality grows, and global warming goes unchecked. It would seem timely to change our paradigms, our patterns of thought, and so our myths.

“For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.”

On Criticising a Game of Thrones

Trigger warnings: discussion of rape and rape culture.

Spoilers: GOT/ASOIAF spoilers!

There is a great deal of intelligent, elegant writing both by and on the genre of fantasy. Sadly, there seems to be something about GRR Martin’s epic A Game of Thrones series that brings out the worst in all of us.

Let me clarify: I very much enjoy both A Game of Thrones on television and the series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire. I also hold the apparently radical opinion that one can enjoy something and still find it problematic.

Laurie Penny’s review of A Game of Thrones has caused somewhat of a storm across the SFF blogosphere, with the descriptive phrase “racist rape culture Disneyland with dragons” and the contention that GOT has “goodies and baddies” proving catalytic to critical responses.

Clearly, there is more to GOT than a simple dichotomy. I personally get the greatest amount of pleasure from reading it as a parable, watching the personal and political constraints of feudalism shaping characters’ actions and beings in ways which can hardly be written off as “good” or “evil”. I really enjoyed Charli Carpenter’s post on Game of Thrones as theory, and if you’ve read this far, you likely would too.

However, there is much in what Laurie says about the inherent “goodness” of the Starks that really can’t be written off as simplistic analysis, as not present in the text. The Starks make terrible kings, it is clear, with one Hand being executed and the King in the North finding his own doom when both find themselves constitutionally unable to play the games of politics.

Still, the surviving Starks are, although young, simply devoid of flaws as she said, and, together with their uncanny communication with wolves and inherent link to nature, clearly axiomatically “good” in some sense. The fact that the messy human world will not allow them to rule is a rather different story, and the sundering of Sansa from her wolf by her father’s hand rather symbolises her being cast out of the “natural” order by political marriage. Whether Anya Stark will ever be reunited with her own abandoned wolf remains to be seen.

While the best of the Starks end up dead as a result of their own actions, the best of the Lannisters, Tyrion, was indeed a rapist from the start, though against his own will. Forced by his father to rape a prostitute with whom he fell in love, as part of a grotesque punishment, Tyrion starts off an offence against nature: his dwarfism is felt as an insult and marring by the entire Lannister family, and he killed his mother in childbirth. From these beginnings he goes on to become the most responsible of the Lannisters, for which he is effectively cast out of the social order, ending up by killing his own father and fleeing.

The “good-evil” dichotomy is definitely present in AGOT, although, like some elements of rape culture and like some basic tropes of orientalist racism (in Dany’s freeing of the slaves),  it is deconstructed over the series. This doesn’t mean it is not present, and while “racist rape culture Disneyland with dragons” doesn’t encompass the entirety of the series, it remains a valid description of many generic fantasy tropes – most of which are not deconstructed at all. We write about these things because we still do live in a culture with stark problems: if we were free of rape culture, I could walk down the street free of harassment and my flatmate could go to the beach on her own, many disparate writers have found the treatment of race in AGOT problematic, and so on.

I am, however, very surprised at the level of resistance to Laurie’s  statement that “the quest for the good ruler” is the (other) main theme of the series. This seems rather obviously true, as the main premise of the plot is internal division while an existential threat, the coming Winter and the Others gathering in the North, is ignored; Winter, indeed, is coming, and the people of Westerros will need to stand united against it if they wish to survive.

By the end of the fifth book the main candidates for the mythical role of Returned King seem to be  the hardened, canny Stannis, Jon Snow, whose precise parentage and possible claim to the throne is obscured and who may not survive, and the uncannily beautiful Danerys, linked with nature through her dragons and the resurgence of magic in the world which they either channel or portend. The dragons seem key, with their dragonfire a historically potent weapon against Others; still, it is also likely that GRR Martin will play things out more complicatedly than this. There still remains a bevy of compromised, interesting Southerners in play, after all.

Sadly, I have not yet seen any refutation of Laurie’s points which doesn’t itself indulge in the fundamental attribution error of considering her understanding “superficial”, rather than the brevity of her piece to require superficiality, or which doesn’t simply set up straw women to tilt at, claiming that Laurie wanted to watch “Sweden with wizards“, rather than maybe considering whether  it might be possible to address those themes with just a little less triggering rape culture and normative violence. Pointing out that these things are still damaging of themselves is not the same as calling for censorship. As for me, I can’t help but find feudal rape culture just as viscerally upsetting as the real thing, but I’d rather remain watching and enjoying – while also pointing out problems – than lock myself in a metaphorical room just because it’s safer.

A Game of Thrones very clearly really is about society’s leaders, rather than ordinary people who are swept along or aside; just because the consequences of this are repeatedly shown does not mean that it is not the case. Yet, there is a huge underground tension in the novels between whether the plot being driven by the feudal “1%” really is “natural” or not. The surviving Starks are forced into an education among the common people that will leave them far less naive than their dead patriarchs. Varys may be one of the few to rise into the ruling class, but he is also one of the few of the ruling class to truly care about the people of the kingdoms. Jon finds himself undone by the requirements of his position; in making tough decisions he undermines the institution that has him as Night’s Watch Commander, and faces an attack from his own men.

Even Danerys, with her Valyrian purple eyes and white hair and inborn right to rule by commanding dragons, finds her despotic orientalist ruling style little use in actually helping the people whom she wishes to help. One can’t help wondering if the magic-enhancing dragons really will save Westerros from the Others in a storm of fire, or end up eventually causing whichever mysterious problems led to the “doom of Valyria”. Perhaps the common man or woman of Westeros does think that the problem of who can rule them can “go to the Others”, yet if they are not free to store corn against Winter that is exactly what will happen to all of them.

I don’t believe that we can read a text in only one way, but it’s disingenuous to argue that Laurie’s view on this type of story isn’t very valid indeed. With no discussion of any alternative to austerity present at the recent Tony Blair-headlined Astana Summit, I’m pretty worried about my own society’s reaction to  existential Winter myself. Maybe we’d be better off without a ruling class at all, but if we’re stuck with one for the moment I’d bet my dragons on Tyrion Lannister over Blair any day. Isn’t that in itself pretty telling on behalf of reality?

Whose academy? Academic feminism, privilege and the Age of Austerity

Does academic feminism oppress women?

This piece holds that it does, broadly arguing that universities, like other societal institutions, are patriarchal and exist to further the interests of men, and that academic feminism often silences non-academic feminists, reinforcing existing authority and ways of being rather than supporting calls to action and effecting real change. It argues that “You don’t need to read books to be a feminist. You don’t need to be able to read at all.”

What is academic feminism, and does it have a case to answer? There is a vast range of feminist writing, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly where it begins: was it with Wollenscroft’s 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with the aristocratic female poets of earlier centuries, with women who did not write in English? These are books as separate from academic feminism, though: academic feminism can specifically be said to have begun around the establishment of the first Womens Studies departments in 1970.

What we can also definitely say is that in recent decades feminist argument has often been used by those in power to state that women need educated along the path to becoming equals; that the West is inherently superior – an argument used to justify the Iraq war, despite the deterioration of conditions in Iraq and the immense misery and suffering the war has caused to women; and to state that certain groups of women such as straight women, practitioners of BDSM or trans women are inherently anti-feminist.

The “third wave” of feminist thought of the 1990s also has many specific criticisms of the “second wave” of the ’70s and 80s centred around the flaws with essentialist thought and the intersectionality of oppression: by avoiding binary distinctions, by playing with and owning the language we use, and by fighting all kinds of oppression that affect women, it was thought that we could progress towards real gender equality. A great deal of queer theory was written, taking its inspiration from radical communities and activists which pursued a critical, non-assimilationist politics.

Many of the most criticised “second wave” feminists were and are academics. Roz Kaveney’s criticism of Sheila Jeffreys centres around the essence of her feminism as an academic, theoretical project, and criticism of the recently-glitterbombed Greer does likewise.

Modern academic feminism, however reluctantly, also includes figures like Catherine Hakim, who argues that feminism is over and that any oppression women suffer is because they are not trying hard enough. Clearly there is much to criticise about all periods of academic feminism. But is making individual critiques enough?

Looking back from 2012, the inherent superiority of “feminism 3.0” is becoming less clear-cut. There are many accounts of ’70s and ’80s feminism being vastly more diverse than the academic history suggests, and a general project is taking place to reclaim and rethink the term “radical feminist”, and re-read and re-appreciate the many fierce “second wave” feminist thinkers, some of whom, like Dworkin, were not originally academics.

We are also facing an age of austerity, and feminist thought is re-focusing on the economic realm, the intersectionality of struggle and on the function of labour. So what does this mean for academic feminism? Does the academy specifically function to oppress women?

The wider role of academia

Anti-oppressive critiques of academia can be taken back to not long after the Enlightenment itself. Edward Said, writer of Orientalism, deeply critiqued the role of 18th and 19th century philologists in “fixing” representation of the orient and of the “orientals” living there. This school of thought was a crucial influence on the intellectual ideas used to justify the emergent forms of fascism in the 1920s and 30s.

However, in the same piece Said calls for a current return to philology, a discipline which can only be broadly categorised as the creative study of language. Academia is a terrain in which disciplinary boundaries and the weight of evidence are constantly shifting, and a mode of study which was once reactionary may later be undertaken to different effect.

It is also difficult to place the role of academia in society in relation to the geopolitical and the economic. Marx believed that intellectuals held a crucial position in driving revolutionary change, and Gramsci later developed this into a specific critique of the social role of intellectuals in society: “all men are intellectuals” [and presumably women] “but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”.

Gramsci called for “traditional intellectuals” – today’s academics – to be joined by “organic intellectuals” from the working class to effect social change. This is somewhat of an oversimplification of Gramsci, and it is worth noting that the vast majority of people today fit Marx’ definition of the proletariat – those who must exchange their labour for the means of subsistence, whether that means be rent or mortgage. It seems likely that many online-educated social justice activists might themselves fall within his definition of “organic intellectuals”. Still, there is a general critique here: academia has a social role in propping up current hegemony, and it cannot simply wish that role away through sufficiently stringent enquiry.

Chomsky, writing more recently, suggests that common sense is and should be sufficient to understand the social sphere, and has somewhat disagreed with Marx’s take on the role of state power for some time. Chomsky also specifically dislikes Marx due to Marx’s role as a theorist: Chomsky feels that ideological change must not come from the auspices of some overarching theory, but from practical argument, evidence, and common sense. Quite what Chomsky thinks of the radical anthropologist David Graeber, who appears to share and comprehensively evidence this view on state power, is still a mystery.

None of these thinkers seem to take a position specifically against academia, however, calling instead for critical self-evaluation. Giroux, writing this year, draws on the writing of the Brazilian radical educator Paulo Freire to argue that Occupy is right to insist on an emphasis on education as part of participatory democracy; neoliberalism is stifling critical thinking in academia, and critical thinking is essential for any kind of real democracy. “Education cannot be neutral”, he states.

But let us not vanish here into the competing arguments of male thinkers. Decades before Occupy, feminist bell hooks had met Friere and considered the same issues, concluding that literacy is essential for the feminist movement: “because the lack of reading, writing and critical skills serves to exclude many women and men from feminist consciousness. Not only that, it excludes many from the political process and the labour market”.

bell hooks practices a notion of praxis similar to Friere’s, combining reflection and action and, in teaching, requiring this from both students and teachers. Teachers must be aware of the power disparity they possess when in the classroom, and take a holistic approach emphasising well-being and self-actualisation of both student and teacher.

Clearly a part of this must be being critical of the role of academic outside the classroom, as well. However, nothing about academia functions specifically to oppress women – though it may have a social role of oppression, this is one which functions intersectionally, and cannot be combated by a posited removal of one axis of oppression alone. Remove gendered oppression, and we still have race, class, and so many others. And perhaps you don’t need to be able to read to be a feminist, to survive under capitalism: but it helps.

Neo-liberal governmentality – who watches the watchers?

Under neoliberalism, we watch each other.

Critiques of academia in previous generations centred around its social role, too.  Writing in 1969 on the back of a decade of student-led upheaval, Chomsky stated “It is pointless to discuss the “function of the university” in abstraction from concrete historical circumstances”. And while the 1960s shook the capitalist world to its foundations, the dreamed-of revolution never materialised. It seems likely that Chomsky’s views on “the marketplace of ideas” would now be rather different, as the market is more obviously a creation of the state.

The critical thinker Michel Foucault also shared later Chomsky’s and Graeber’s understanding of the state’s relationship to the market – at least until the birth of neoliberalism. Under neoliberalism, “It is the market form which serves as the organizational principle for the state and society”. This sea-change in conception, if not in political fact, has resulted in a definite change in social relations under neoliberalism, referred to by Foucault as “governmentality”, and characterised by”social responsibility becoming a matter of personal provisions”.

This regime has necessary implications for anti-oppression work. Current models of privilege are intertwined with governmentality, asking that the individual take responsibility for their own white privilege, male privilege, and so forth, and individually work to educate themselves and, so far as possible, remain aware of their own privileges as the first step towards dismantling them.

Thus systemic racism and other forms of oppression can only be challenged by first making an intervention – challenging someone – which is predicated on neoliberal understandings of the self. A hegemony which is based on global racism, sexist division of labour, resistance to the social model of disability, and so forth, can only be opposed by first intervening in a way which is based on this hegemony. Challenging privilege often meets with a vitriolic response. Among frantic derailing and privilege defence, there is also sometimes a component of generational resistance to neoliberal social relations. It is worth understanding this and, where possible, to treat it separately, in order to better challenge the privilege which it conceals.

This resistance is no excuse, of course, for perpetuating oppression. Older systems of social relations also perpetuated oppression, failing in the end to overcome it and often having their struggles derailed and rendered futile by lack of attention to other forms of oppressions, to intersectionality. For many people, older concepts of community and communal struggle did not prove to be communal at all. What, as feminists, can we learn from this dynamic?

Firstly, that the privilege-based model of oppression came not from academia, but from grass-roots activism. Innovative responses to current conditions need not come from the academy, nor need academia to give them legitimacy. Using academic language is not the same as being politically part of academia, nor is it necessarily the same as not being understandable.

Secondly, that academic expression is not always optimal or desirable. Frequently the most impenetrable academic theorists – Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak – are those articulating the most interesting ideas, rendered near-unintelligible by their need to simultaneously defend themselves against hostile male colleagues; this elaborately-buttressed language renders their ideas unassailable, yet difficult to use effectively. Yet it is also a style, just as technical writing is a style, and without this style neither theorist would have been able to have the significant influence which both have had. We cannot simply choose our mode of speech, it is also determined by our environment. An idea may not currently be articulable within one way of speaking, while being so within another.

Thirdly, that there is at least one privilege that it is massively difficult to address within our current understanding: that of the English language. Currently the English language is globally dominant, and as bell hooks argued that literacy is essential to empowerment, our current understanding is that the English language is essential to global empowerment. Yet English is simply not added to a non-anglophonic person’s choice of means of speech: there is a power disparity globally, with many writers from non-anglophone countries choosing to write in English simply to find an audience. Hegemony tends to edge out other choices, to perpetuate power dynamics, to present a totality from which there is no easy escape. We must be mindful of this ambiguity of language, and place it in context among global oppressions which can be pitted one against the other, amongst hierarchies of power, privilege and being which invisibly rule.

And we must not simply watch one another, as individual actors, but recover some sort of sense of solidarity and communal struggle. The queer community is  built around this: grass-roots, communal, informed by academia, against imperialism, patriarchal capitalism and every form of oppression. Yet there are some profound ambiguities here: in being defined against something there is the potential to create both in- and out-groups, to repeat the mistakes of the past. The language-slippage of “queerness” seeks to counterbalance this, but will it be enough?

Academic language is essential to governmentality, as neoliberalism uses academic language to legitimise its ruling strategies, to ensure that we govern ourselves as (neoliberal) consensus sees fit. Whether we want it or not, academia and academic language is shaping up to be a major battleground as neoliberalism is becoming austerity neoliberalism, a process which is the natural consequence of changes during decades before.

Austerity and Academia

Now we have left the early days of neoliberalism and entered an age of austerity, in which previous liberal certainties appear to be under attack.

Academia is under attack, also. In 2010 funding formulas meant that Middlesex Philosophy – a department that cut across language divides in studying (often, presumably, in translation) French and German philosophy – was cut. Other UK university cuts have followed suit, with London Met soon to become little more than a technical college. The University of Sussex is finding itself increasingly far from its 60’s radical roots, as the future of its Sexual Dissidence comes under question, while increasing support is being given to Security Studies. The state and the market are acting to close in the gaps, to solidify one particular set of interests – and these are broadly not the interests of women.

Women are under attack. Austerity is a vitally significant moment for feminism. Cuts are having a vastly disproportionate effect on women, leaving women unemployed, without childcare, forced into remaining in abusive relationships, doing more unpaid work, being pushed inch by inch back towards the margins. Meanwhile, most feminist discussion in the media consist of manufactured attacks by women on other women. Something is entirely rotten here, and it must be fought.

Feminism and Austerity are holding a conference to examine austerity and to combat and resist negative changes in academia – as well as in the wider public sphere, considering challenges to women’s writing, art and performance as well as scholarship.

While this is worthwhile, it is becoming increasingly obvious that any approach which attempts to fight austerity in academia alone will not be enough. We need solidarity across the board, between classes, races, genders, between all people committed to making a better world than the ideologically and linguistically whitewashed dystopia which austerity capitalism offers.

Being an individual is not enough, and neither is being a class.

How should we speak to power?

If we cannot choose not to fight on every front, we can at least prepare the battlefield.

Academic feminists must become conscious of the social role of academia, particularly under neoliberalism. We must also be conscious that academic language is a particular kind of speech; different kinds of speech have different relations to power under different historical conditions. At present, academic speech is heavily privileged under neoliberalism: this makes it both a tool, and a potential accidental weapon against those with less privilege.

While it is not quite true to say that academia oppresses women, the writer who argued that it did was quite right to not spend her time casting about for references to permit her to argue from authority.

Where I have done so, it is more an attempt to weave a tapestry from which a pattern can be discerned, than to argue in order to convince, to force, to educate without doing so mindfully, to compel. These issues exist together with other “women’s issues”, together with all people’s issues, in a way that ties women’s work across time and across space. This is a pattern of progress for some women – and only some: first worldly, sociologically middle class, articulate, here.  We must act mindfully to ensure systemic change for all, before the thread is rudely cut off.

What we can do is be conscious of our speech, and speak appropriately. We can challenge privilege where others are unconscious or uncaring of it; we can snark to each other and in the face of power, as marginal speech acts to build solidarity. We can speak to power openly on our own terms, rather than adopting a different discourse, rather than labouring emotionally to make our words palatable to others.

What we cannot do is disengage from power entirely, but often we are better speaking to each other, so that when we do address the mass media we do so honestly and giving the minimum potential for distortion. So that when we speak to each other we do so as as close as we can come to equals, as feminists and allies, as mindful human beings.

When we do speak to power, we should do so to amplify the voices of the unheard, rather than to put forward our own interpretations and agendas: under neoliberalism, they are not entirely our own.

And when we do leap up to take action, we can do so united as one body rather than striking alone against one form of oppression. We stand at a vital point in history, and our words and actions will weigh disproportionally in the scale of what comes next.

Seven SF novels for radicals, utopians, and dreamers

So what is SF? Partially a hazy roadmap, partially a utopian dream, and very often a mirror of present conditions, the genre resists settled categorisation just as it resists elevation to the hallowed heights of literary fiction.

Where to start?

1) Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series. The three books, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars articulate a vision of a future well informed not only by possible technological progress but by history, sociology, and politics. Poetic and evocative, they are well worth a read by anyone wishing to give texture to their dreams of space.

2) Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution Series, particularly The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division. Optimistic on technological progress, realistic on real world geopolitics, realpolitik, and on “with how little care the world is run.” I think on re-reading I’d be a bit critical of the depiction of one female character, but in a future where people are constructed and rebuilt pinning down what’s ethical and what’s not will be a tricky job indeed. Highly reccommended.

3) Iain M. Banks Culture Novels. It’s a bit difficult to pick favourites here: many would plump for Excession, while Use of Weapons, The Player of Games and Consider Phlebas are darker, more accessible, and more human. (My personal favourite Banks is the poetic, guttingly sad Against A Dark Background, which isn’t even a Culture novel at all, so best to ignore that for now).

The Culture novels are best described as a cross between an anarcho-syndicalist post-scarcity utopia, and a liberal utopia and mirror of the Now. While the Culture is definitely utopian, it’s effectively ran by small, genial cabaals of artificially intelligent Minds that use people and species as unknowing pieces on a chessboard. This is a situation which would once sound like echoed theories of dubious conspiracists, but as the evidence begins to come in, reminds one of our far less intelligent and altruistic rulers more and more each year.

4) Ursula K. Le Guin: either The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, or, frankly, both. Deeply informed by feminism, anthropology, and the social and political base to technology, Le Guin’s books blazed a trail that affected every novel in the genre to come after them.

Being less directly concerned with specific technological advances, Le Guin’s books have a great deal more space to breathe and to play and to give rise to both striking personal and political insight. Neither novel would be the first SF I’d recommend, but they might easily either be the most critically influential.

5) Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty. While not looking into the future but the past, Spufford’s far from uncritical examination into the apogee of Soviet technology and economics sheds a vastly needed amount of light into where everything went wrong with the Soviet dream… as well as hinting at the potentiality for similarly critical examination of the capitalism which co-evolved with and eventually defeated it. Absolutely essential reading.

6) The Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic. Written in 1971 in the USSR and refused publication for a number of years, it was later turned into the Tarkovsky film Stalker – a film made twice as the first version was “accidentally destroyed” by the processing service.

Roadside Picnic is now available to read free online, and, as a novella, it is possible to do so relatively quickly. But just why was this short novel so subversive? In brief, it is a critical examination of the impartiality and social function of technology that, in its depiction of a hostile “zone”, echoed Soviet environmental pollution and foreshadowed Chernobyl. Vital reading.

7) Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I’m going out on a limb here, as I haven’t actually read Parable yet, but based on how superb Wild Seed and Lillith’s Brood are, it has to be reccommended.

Here we have something striking: the only clearly dystopian novel here is the only one by a person of colour. Why is this the case? And why have I recommended Parable rather than either of those I have read? And why, interestingly, why have I not recommended anything by Sam Delany, whom I hold in the highest possible regard?

I have to confess that I found reading Lillith’s Brood disturbing, and that this was due to the power disparity between the aliens and humanity, and that my finding this disturbing was due to my white privilege. (Perhaps how disturbing I found it is the highest recommendation of all). Wild Seed is excellent, but is not science fiction: Butler’s examination of power and community reaches far into the past before arriving at the present. And Delany: Delany has not written any science fiction novels for far too many decades.

So here we are: all of the white Western delvers into the future who I mentioned above – Banks, MacLeod, Robinson, Le Guin – are working on dreams of futures where global racism is no more, but it is strikingly difficult to find a convincing vision of this by anyone who is not white. Clearly we have much further to go on this than we realise, and Octavia Butler’s Parable represents much of her most recent thinking around the subject.

And here we are.

And for the wild card, and because I never miss an opportunity to recommend it: neither SF nor a novel, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years sheds more light on the present through the lens of the past than any examination of possible futures could. Potentially epoch-defining, and a beautifully constructed and illuminating read. Go.

Love Will Tear Us Apart, Again

Last weekend our glorious government spiced up the long bank holiday with its own special blend of haplessness and idiocy, proposing that all under 25s be denied Housing Benefit, thus forcing them to “move back in with their parents”.

It does not take long to realise why this is completely unworkable: many people cannot move back in with their parents, many parents do not have room – especially those who have separated, found a new partner, or been compelled to downsize rented property. In the end the reasons for quietly dropping it are far more about the cost of assessment rather than  those who cannot speak up to say “I can’t”: those estranged, those abused by their families as well as LGBTQ youth who would be forced into abusive relationships, survival sex work, and street homelessness.

It is wrong to dismiss the suggestion out of hand as simply a bank holiday-motivated wheeze, however. Among the callous indifference and breathtaking naivete, a few good intentions lie buried. When seen alongside Rowan Williams’ speech on the ills of identity politics, a pattern begins to emerge of a rising tide of nostalgic communal conservatism. To remain with this specific case, perhaps some young queers will be able to repair their relationships with parents once forced back into the parental home. Yet, for me, the thing that worked to restore my once-fraught relationship was distance: with distance came the ability to see things clearly, and with distance came equality of power. The one thing that would not have worked is trying to force me into a proximity that, through putting us on an uneven footing, would have prevented real communication and created an abusive relationship. As a lonely young queer person, I knew this well, and had I had to choose between that and the streets, I would have chosen the streets.

This is not just about me, however. Not just the Tories but Labour have been speaking of this. Take this quote from 2010, for example:

“The politics of equality of opportunity has licensed ever greater inequality; we need instead a more radical economic egalitarianism coupled with the recognition of a difference of roles and a hierarchy of excellence.”

If this sounds like justification of entrenched inequality couched in the language of progressiveness, well, that’s exactly what it is. But it’s not alone. Today saw two astonishing pieces on gay rights: one in the Guardian, advocating that Stonewall, a notoriously socially conservative group, should stop advocating social change and stick to an almost-Victorian charitable comforting of the bullied; the other in the Telegraph, arguing that the Christian message that “Gayness can be cured” is more progressive than “We should stop attacking gay people”.

Never mind the facts, this utopian vision of return to some imagined communal, conservative past is here to stay, and as equal rights legislation is repealed and campaigns against abortion ramp up in both the US and the UK, this is rhetoric that we will see again and again.

So where is this drive coming from? It is worth taking some time to look at the idea of the community, the communal. In Science Fiction fandom, a generational shift is becoming apparent, with new activist writers and fans clashing with an older communal “union culture“; the new generation centres anger at racism and other forms of often unconscious discrimination, while the old generation centres following established procedures and first taking care of the emotional needs of the group. Both groups often have the same aims, which makes the disagreements all the more bitter and heartbreaking. When miscommunication happens, it seems almost intangible: we seem to inevitably split into both sides, with neither comprehending the emotional dynamics and unstated assumptions of the other.

Ideas of the “new lost generation”, the “generation without a future” are mocked almost as often as they are felt to be fiercely true. Yet the gap between generations is not just an economic divide. Neoliberalism has struck deeply at the structure of social relations, leaving the majority of a generation with embedded liberal assumptions that there truly is no “us and them”: just as there is no outgroup which is fundamentally and absolutely different, there is no ingroup which can always be trusted and relied upon for support. Each social relationship must for ever be renegotiated at the point of contact, like a NHS service put out to tender to the best-connected bidder. The assumption that no outgroup member is fundamentally different doesn’t combat prejudice, it simply airbrushes it, writing off discrimination as failure to meet a set of “objective” criteria, meritocracy in action. There is no real ingroup, only circumstance and situational alliance. We are all in competition with one other, from the cradle to the grave.

How can we imagine something other than this? At present this is a difficult question: we already seem to be living in a dystopia imagined by our forebears, with Orwell and Atwood seeming more like writers of a blueprint than warners against potential disaster. Dystopian fiction is incredibly popular, particularly among young women, who already face vastly intense pressures on their appearance and conduct. Do we already live in a kind of surveillance society, where keeping a watchful eye on one another has replaced mutual identification, respect, care?

It’s starting to seem as if we do, which is one reason why nostalgic, dangerous dreams of some sleepy 1950s village have such appeal.

If we are not to sleepwalk into some hellish future-past, we need to begin thinking big and daring to dream beyond identity politics –  in a positive sense. We need to reforge some new version of the communal, collapsing down neoliberalism’s eternal Elsewhere and Elsewhen of suffering and dissent in order to Be in the here and now. We need to recognise the inherent ambiguity of technological progress, yet turn it into a tool in our hands and at the direction of our imagination, not of our fears. We need to re-centre science and factual analysis, while remaining conscious of science as a social process that can be twisted to any end. We need to sweep away old certainties, and turn away from the past to look ahead into the real future, with our only comfort the fact that we are not doing so alone, but are proceeding, step by rough step, hand in hand.

An Island

“Arriving in Keflavik is like landing on Mars.” I hadn’t thought that it would rain this much on Mars.

At first, the transition away from Britishness was gradual: depart through a terminal gate emblazoned with “Barclays”, arrive through one logoed “Landsbanki”. Airports exist to facilitate the free movement of capital, not of people, not that I was in any danger of forgetting this: like a growing number of my student peers, I was an economic migrant. Come to Iceland on the ERASMUS program, pay less rent than London, and receive an additional grant together with a tuition fee waiver. Alone in a new country, speaking none of the language, I suddenly had cause to doubt my own economic logic. Was any of it worth this?

Outside the terminal showed more promise. I peered through my coach window, stunned by public art that wasn’t a hideous corporate abortifact: a metal seed sprouting hesitantly among a pile of rocks; the Norse gods’ rainbow bridge, Bifrost, reaching up into the air. Perhaps Iceland is different, I thought.

First impressions confirmed that. Reykjavik is a spacious, green city, with better weather than Edinburgh: colder, brighter, with winter snow that’s less hostile than driving rain, heated by free geothermal energy. I saw no homelessness; sleeping rough in winter would equal murder. I found that I breathed more easily once outside the UK, away from the grinding negativity of the media and from new-found fear of the police, inspired by student and activist friends’ accounts of truncheons and dubiously legal arrests.

I did feel that I had escaped something by coming to Iceland, but exactly what? Contrary to the hype, Iceland hasn’t escaped the economic consequences of the banking crash, facing cuts and 
the ratcheting open of the country to outside corporate investment. Still, as Iceland’s government stated firmly to the IMF, this is a Nordic social democracy, with a solid social safety net. Was the difference here purely economic?

Something did feel different. There was no nastiness in the air, no murmuring about scroungers and laziness. Some of my friends had the kind of precarious service-jobs that usually serve up micromanagement and bitter depression to their workers. Here this was completely absent, personality clashes aside. Crime was rare, supervision minimal, and people were free to work under their own initiative.

Still, clearly the Crash showed that everything wasn’t hunky-dory, with many of Iceland’s richest people having fled abroad to escape prosecution. This wasn’t some kind of capitalist utopia. Socially, historically, and geographically Iceland is different, even from the other Nordic countries: family and social bonds are strong, and, knowing this, many women have children young – and choose to do so across social classes. There is less pressure on women to be thin, to regulate their sexuality, to fit into a specific media-mediated mould. Society in general felt less controlled, less hierarchical, and more open to possibility.

I opened my own mind, too, and found myself thinking less about how much of freedom is economically determined, and more about how much is not.

Living in Iceland, I found myself linguistically privileged. Most Icelandic people speak English, and are happy to do so when asked, otherwise defaulting to Icelandic. People talk freely in English about the rich, about Klein’s Shock Doctrine, yet most of the country’s political debate is conducted in Icelandic. If there is nastiness in Iceland, it doesn’t make it across the language barrier. Whatever regulatory regimes exist work on those living within a culture permanently, mediated through social connections and language. As a foreign visitor, albeit a long-term one, I got a free pass.

This, naturally, led me to 
read about the English. I read about how much of class is mediated in Britain through language: the usage of living room, sitting room, or lounge being one gross, banal example. Iceland isn’t the classless society it would like to be, but it doesn’t have that. I also felt free through not being part of the horrific grind of British politics, with its accompanying apocalyptic levels of pessimism from Left and Right.

I wondered: when I did feel hopeless about the future, how much of my pessimism was based on direct experience, and how much on media-mediated narratives, on shows and articles commissioned for profit? Anyone who reads anything online knows how awful and unrepresentative comment threads are, and how impossible they are to avoid. A few awful experiences, a few hate-filled idiots, are far from the totality of experience, though in terms of word-volume it feels as though they are.

When Occupy Wall Street began to take off, I attended meetings in Reykjavik, understanding little, speaking less, and ultimately cooking in lieu of words. I saw Occupy Reykjavik evolved, not into the equitable meetings between homeowners, nationalists and radical left that we hoped for – and initially saw – but into two or three hardy men sleeping in tents, raising awareness of something that everyone in Iceland was perfectly aware of already. Something had gone wrong here, and something inevitable: instead of working on change in Iceland, we were replicating what we saw on Youtube and looking overseas.

Looking to New York, and to London, centres of global economic hegemony – and world centres of the English language.

It turned out that I couldn’t escape after all.

Yet now I don’t feel so hopeless. Another world is certainly possible, though not one I can step into by boarding a ‘plane. I couldn’t cut my ties to the UK so easily: every day I was online reading, talking with friends and relatives, all in English.

I love Iceland, and my hopes go with it into an uncertain future; I remain confident in Icelanders’ ability to fight back against negative social changes, no matter how economically inevitable they are painted to be. Yet building something new, something needed? That’s something we all need to do, through organisation and through language, and hiving off and becoming an island is the only thing that isn’t possible.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

But islands can only exist
If we have loved in them

Derek Walcott

The Lie of Iceland – and what it might mean for the UK

Iceland has the solution to the banking crisis, or so I keep reading on Twitter. It’s true that, unlike many other countries, Iceland has actually arrested some bankers. Still, of the four government ministers implicated in the Special Investigation Commission’s “Truth Report”, only one is being tried. In a country where family ties are strong and in which government ministers are frequently passed in the street, it’s impossible to have a catastrophe on the scale of the banking crisis without someone carrying responsibility. Icelanders talk openly about the rich, responsible for the crisis, many of whom have now fled the country completely.

It’s worth highlighting the inconsistencies in the media account. It’s often said that the banks were “allowed to fail”, yet a State Department cable released by Wikileaks clearly calls Icelandic government intervention a “bailout”. One of the three banks involved remains publicly owned, while the other two are now largely owned by anonymous foreign investors.

The way in which successive Icelandic governments have dealt with the crash is illustrative. The Icelandic Krona was saved from complete decimation by means of an IMF-agreed refloatation together with currency restrictions. Still, Iceland didn’t go crawling to the IMF, cap in hand: talks were held with Russia over a currency deal, and it seems unlikely that the issue hasn’t been discussed with China, too. This is hardly without precedent: while Iceland hosted a US base at Keflavik until 2006, Cold War talk of switching sides to Russia was a useful negotiating tactic. It seems to have worked in the case of the crash, with the IMF deal being infinitely less harsh than the “structural adjustments” often imposed on the global south.

Iceland has also dealt with its debts advantageously, at least up to the present. The money owed after the Icesave crash may soon see repayment, as prospects of a good deal on the Iceland food chain are now much better. Even if frozen food doesn’t pay off all the debt, there will be years more to find a solution before the European Court renders a judgement.

While Iceland’s outgoings look stable, the same can’t be said about her assets. While Naomi Klein initially bought in to the heroic story of Iceland resisting the IMF, the current austerity and sale of Iceland’s assets could come straight from her account of the neoliberal shock doctrine. Before the crash, almost all businesses in Iceland were owned by Icelanders. Now the foreign-owned aluminium industry is swiftly growing, and debate over use or sale of land continues. When you follow the money, what emerges isn’t so much the story of the lone plucky Viking but a country which has had much of its own “rich”, it’s own ruling class deposed in favour of the rich from abroad, and which now only awaits the lifting of the currency restrictions to lie open to foreign capital.

It is worth emphasising the scale of resistance to land exploitation in Iceland. In 1970, opposition to a large dam project was so strong that farmers dynamited a smaller dam in warning. Iceland has always had a strong rural conservative element, and this allied to environmental concerns has made Iceland a tough nut to crack. It is only after the crash, and the threat to the standard of healthcare and education, that Iceland has come to accept the current need to court foreign investment which it is now convinced that it needs.

Since the crash, levels of private debt have soared, particularly levels of mortgage debt, due to the effect of the crash and refloatation of the Krona on mortgage indices. While the current left-wing government largely holds repossessions in moratorium, it seems clear that, just like in the rest of Europe, the banks’ private debt has been socialised. Right now there is no alternative to neoliberalism, and there is no escape: though more Icelanders have emigrated than at any time since 1887, a few have even gone directly to serve as soldiers for Norway in Afghanistan.

There is hope in Iceland. The swiftly-occurring ousting of Haarde’s 2008 government put down roots, and while things are now quieter there is much scope for future co-operation between broadly nationalist, home-owning, environmentalist and left-wing groups. Most ongoing protest in Iceland centres around the issue of mortgage debt, yet the lack of trust in government and demonstration of the power of protest shows the potential for a dual-power situation to arise. In the Europe of 2011, such movements are largely concentrated in the European South, yet Iceland shows that there is yet hope for the North, though perhaps in some unexpected places.

Iceland’s geopolitical position is different from that of the UK, just as its economic and sociological position is different. Iceland drifted into being a Norwegian client since well before vassalisation in 1262, and since then it has been a Danish protectorate, owned (briefly) by a Danish pirate operating from Barbary, (briefly) by a Danish adventurer, been occupied  by the UK during WWII and afterwards hosting a US base. Iceland knows very well how international conditions can swiftly change.  However, like pre-crash Iceland, the UK economy is strongly reliant on its financial sector, the UK parliamentary left and right are both firmly neoliberal, and Cameron & Osborne have been making some particularly poor decisions of late.

Iceland’s leading professor of economics observes that “we need to know how to read the warning signals. We need to know how to count the cranes”. It may be worth taking a look out at the London skyline – and learning what we can from Iceland now.


How to suppress a protest movement: part three

<—Read Part One Here—>

<—Read Part Two Here—>

Destroy trust within a broad movement and between more and less radical activists:

Some of the easiest protesters to smear are the “unwashed” in squats, with the tabloid phrasing linking back to a long history of anti-working class sentiment. With the wealth gap in the UK dramatically increasing, and the same picture repeating around the world, such sentiment is likely to increase. The most violent societies tend to be the most unequal, and while the needs of the poor remain unaccounted for in mainstream politics it seems unlikely that class prejudice and violence will decrease on their own.

Not only are the poor the most affected by cuts, but they are alo the most affected by aggressive protest policing due to differential treatment by race and class. With poverty associated with increased stress, greater likelihood of being the victim of violence, being unable to escape other forms of violence, and with having less time and energy for organising, it is unsurprising that those most affected by cuts are not always able to protest in huge numbers.

When protesters are more privileged, a new narrative comes into play, with charges of hypocrisy being made and smears targeted at prominent protesters. As previously stated, UK tabloids have typified all of the student protesters as “rich”, playing into a culture which charges all left-wingers with hypocrisy and demands that they constantly prove their credentials or else have “no right to complain”. When the actions of one protester are held to be the actions of all, it becomes both easy to drive wedges both among protesters and between them and the public at large.

While a few protesters are given the media spotlight, the police certain to be infiltrating their ranks are cloaked in secrecy. With the budget of the NPOIU, a body tasked with combating “domestic extremism” having more than doubled in the last four years, all that is certain is that there are a number of undercover officers tasked with infiltrating the protest movement. While the unit has been brought into the Metropolitan Police, its structure has not changed: one unit has a role “similar to the ‘counter subversion’ functions formerly carried out by MI5” in the 60s and 70s, and which involves working alongside MI5, likely to compile dossiers on large numbers of student and left wing activists.

To secure convictions, officers must be involved in planning actions and can be key to them happening at all. Police outside the UK have admitted to disguising themselves as demonstrators, and there are videos of them acting as agent provocatours. Whether police in the UK are acting to incite violence as part of undercover operations is unknown.

What is certain is that both courts and the media often come out against “career protesters”, even the Daily Mail and a former policeman admit that the picture of activists is mixed. This is a picture that does not fit with the news coverage of the student protests.

Another striking thing from the student protests were the attacks on activists for being “too serious” and “party poopers”, for having a negative attitude and making life difficult for the majority. This occurs even when many activists are also comedians, and when many actions are fun and entertaining.

Questioning the official narrative is allowed, but offering another in its place is not. Moreover, all questioning is depressing negativity on the behalf of the questioner, a personal failing. All other narratives can be is either fanaticism or the delusions of harmless hippies. When Obama’s adviser stated that “liberal naysayers” ought to be “drug tested”, it made news only because he conflated his attacks on hippies and party-poopers, rather than making them separately.

These attacks centre around the difficult to oppose idea of “reasonableness” in politics, which pushes discourse towards the centre. When the centre is always unspokenly moving to the right, the end result is a narrative that drifts rightwards over time with no counter to prevent it.

I cannot comment on cases coming to court, but there are a history of arrests that are unfounded but serve to stigmatise movement. The numbers of arrests can be announced in the media, and immediately a perception of “they must have arrested them for something” is established. When the media print numbers of unfounded arrests, this is never corrected, just as untrue press releases are never followed up on.

(At the time of posting, prosecutions have been dropped against over 100 of the Fortnum and Mason arrestees.)

Taken together with bail conditions preventing further protest, and punitive strategies by law enforcement, this renders political protest extremely difficult.

People can also be put off protest not only by the difficulty, but by alienation from experienced activists who often have strongly negative views of the police. When individual police decide to punish experienced activists for being too assertive, it can include takedowns, hands around their necks, use of pressure points for asking for police numbers (which they are legally obliged to give), and standing on people’s feet. Police have acted to disrupt benefit gigs for activists, and a smash EDO protest way back in 2010 saw all the now-standard tactics: kettling, mass arrests followed by release without charge, denial of toilets and water combined with press statements that proved flatly untrue.

The us-and-them mentality of police occurs any time that police anticipate conflict. In one anti-terror raid, police were rightly concerned about armed attack by one subject following the death by stabbing of another arresting officer months earlier. When he surrendered, evidence attests that police proceeded to violently beat and abuse the suspect once he was cuffed and kneeling, and again once he was in his cell.

The effects of the expectation of conflict, antagonism, and adrenaline produce brutal results, as the Stanford Prison Experiment and successors show.

There is extensive evidence behind differential treatment by police forces. Obama mentioned this in relation to race. There is no doubt that an antagonistic culture emerges between police and activists.

While checks and balances exist, many IPCC staff are ex-police, especially those in senior roles. Despite there being over 400 deaths following police contact in the last ten years, no police officer has ever been convicted of murder or manslaughter. There are also serving officers with dozens of complaints against them, none of which have been upheld.

When peaceful protest is constantly challenged and faced with violence, and the agenda is removed from the hands of the public, it is unsurprising that violence emerges. No effective mainstream non-violent action or debate is ever taken to stop violence emerging.

This is shown in sharper relief after the recent rioting to which the political response has largely been punitive, with little thought given to examining evidence or to preventing violence from happening again. The evidence on public order policing shows firmly that low-key approaches are far more effective than punitive ones. The causes of the UK riots are many and beyond the scope of this piece. It is worth noting that the effect of stop-and-search on crime reduction is doubted by criminologists, while those stopped multiple times report feeling angry and alienated just as people are by patterns of racial stereotyping.

While black bloc is a controversial tactic, masking up is often in direct response to FIT teams and surveillance. After the recent riots, the legality of masking up may face more questions, leaving police FIT tactics facing less opposition.

These police tactics are international, forming patterns of violence which replicate over the globe. Activists talk of structural and symbolic violence. Removing all of these forms of violence would constitute a systemic change in the way in which the world is governed, and talking about them explains, while it does not justify, violence by various groups of people including the violence the police are called upon to perform.


Suppression in action:

All of these systemic pressures on protest have combined, in the anti-cuts movement, to result in protester numbers being reduced to a core who are middle class, predominantly white, well educated, well informed on the history of protest movements and the UK law – a minority of people which are easily contained and controlled. The other result is that people who persist in protest must have both a strong narrative behind them and supportive friends, which alienates them from potential protesters.

None of the societal forces behind this are “natural”. Some are explicitly intentional. Many others occur simply through the isolated actions of well-meaning people, actions that have systemic effects which are usually not challenged. Some acts of violence are held to be more moral than others.

These circumstances result in moves which have public supermajorities against often being implemented. NHS blood services are set to be privatised with 64% to 74% against. A majority support renationalising UK railways outright in 2009. While support hovers around 50% for bringing back the death penalty, whether this would persist after a wider societal debate is unclear. At the same time voter turnout has fallen significantly in the last 30 years.

While opinion at the time was divided the Iraq war was pushed through against mass protest, but not direct action. Regardless of the conclusions of the Iraq enquiry, there have been hundreds of thousands of deaths while massive numbers of private security contractors remain, and war rages on elsewhere.

Even without direct pressure from right-wing forces such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp these forces serve to skew the functioning of a society intended to be both free and open. Direct collusion between police, the media and politicians serves to distort, repress and perpetrate injustice to a far higher degree. This piece was written before the current scandal engulfing the British political class and News International, and the degree to which intentional corruption and collusion has played in the suppression of the anti-cuts movement remains to be seen.

While it is well established that we live in a world of growing inequality and changing climate, our decisions are made in a framework which demands constant growth, and where that growth is increasingly measured with reference to ever more speculative bank holdings. These measures ignore human and environmental costs as “externalities”. As the implications of this continue to be ignored, rational questions have to be asked about how truly adaptive our society’s behaviour is.

All the facts behind the current News International scandal have been in the public domain for a long time, yet it has not been news. The effects of war, oil depletion, or cuts are only news long after the event. This is too late to change our behaviour, or even to consider how our society functions and these decisions are made.

We seem to be a society which keeps trying the same thing while expecting different results, yet in many cases the damage has already been done and we cannot go back.


This is what democracy looks like.

How to suppress a protest movement: part two

<—Read Part One Here—>

Make legal protest difficult, frightening and degrading:

The main focus of recent protests has been kettling by the police, with police ready to kettle at almost any excuse, or as a default response to any protest.

This omnipresence of police kettles means that protesters need to be young, energetic, and physically able to take care of themselves in kettles, as they are very dangerous places to be. The involvement in protest of people outside these groups is drastically curtailed. The kettle becomes a means to intimidate people away from protest by large numbers of police, designed to keep people from turning up to protest, or ensuring that they leave for fear of being detained.

The unpredictability of police violence serves as another strong deterrent to protest, with the cases of Alfie Meadows serving as an exemplar, and the case of Ian Tomlinson showing how death can be the result of even incidental involvement in a protest. Recent police actions have involved plainclothes snatch squads and “something you would have expected from the former Soviet Union”, and many at Millbank and during the student protests were hit with batons while not being violent in any way.

The arrest process itself is both traumatic and designed to be, requiring mental preparation to face loss of liberty together with potential humiliation and degradation, with police going so far as to place a 15 year old girl in a paper suit. Arrest is a process intended not only to detain the arrestee, but to put them through an unpleasant experience and to stop repetition. The more people the police can arrest with any potential justification, the more are intimidated away from protest. Bail conditions are often also set to stop further protest. UK Uncut arrestees have been advised by their solicitors to take part in no further activism while awaiting increasingly delayed trials, including not to tweet or blog about political matters.

Journalists are also intimidated away by using the threat of arrest, and “citizen journalists” asked by “official” journalists to upload footage have been arrested.

Networking is prevented by taking control of occupied space, through police raids on squatted homes and community centres, and the eviction of university anti-cuts occupations.

Control is taken over online space, with many activist facebook groups shut down for what has now revealed to be linked to “reasons of national security”.

Even with these measures the Evening Standard (31st March) among others has argued for Twitter to be shut down on protest days, and for more anti-protest laws to prevent peaceful and legal protest.

Through these actions the formation of alternative narratives is prevented at source, with speakers being silenced or their forums for debate being taken away.

While individual police officers are often friendly, rational and reasonable, there exist many career incentives for police officers to go with the “spirit” rather than the letter of orders from above, and rather than the letter of the law. This occurs whether they believe in the “old fashioned policing” embraced gleefully by some officers or not. A “canteen culture” exists within the police which valedicts aggressive, “old fashioned” – often meaning prejudiced and threatening – and gung-ho attitudes and practices. Ex-officers often speak about police collusion in giving statements and evidence, which, due to the extreme unreliability of human memory, is a necessary measure to secure any defended convictions at all. Statements which varied so much as human memories of dramatic circumstances do would, without exception, lead to cases uniformly being thrown out. Though police themselves have called for wearable cameras, the technology to store such data continues to be out of reach.

Collusion has only grown slightly more circumspect since the 20th century, and has the side effect of massively reinforcing the police side of contested circumstances. No matter the truth of events, police loyalties must lie with the other officers and bad practices cannot be challenged in a culture which would punish not being one of the team with, at best, ending any chance of promotion throughout the entire career of that officer. One narrative, forged by agreement in this environment, takes on the stamp of “official version of events” and is rarely, if ever challenged.

Once in custody, under whatever circumstances, treatment there, and thus how distressing and punitive an experience it is, varies drastically according to race and class, with it being enough to be “well spoken”, confident and assertive to get better treatment. Institutional and frequently individual police racism makes treatment in custody drastically different for anyone not white.

Police interactions with protesters are problematised from the start due to the collective blaming of all protesters for any violence. Analysis that steps beyond this scapegoats a minority of protesters, with a narrative of violent protesters “hijacking” demonstrations – a word evoking terrorism. As before, police press releases are often reported unquestioned in both left and right wing media.

After release, whether or not charges are brought, the disruptive effects of arrest on life continue. The seizure of mobile ‘phones together with computers takes away essential tools for conducting daily life and work. Some of those arrested must make their way home over long distances in distinctive jumpsuits and without telephones, maximising the practical and emotionally disruptive effects.

The punitive, forcibly controlling nature of this police behaviour can best be seen in light of the radically different treatment of “political” and non-political events. When 13,000 people took part in a flashmob, closing down Liverpool Street station and massively disrupting commuters, only two arrests were made for public order offences. When 20 people picnicked in Soho Square on the day of the Royal Wedding, they were told that “flashmob”was threatening and 18th century, and were forced to leave the square in small groups under threat of arrest. Some were subject to “pre-arrests”, including a group arrested while drinking tea in Starbucks.

The disruptive effects of even a single unfounded arrest on long-term life and career prospects should not be underestimated, with entry to other countries rendered impossible or substantially more difficult, and, with CRB checks becoming massively more common, is a factor that would put many employers off a candidate.

In addition to using the threat of arrest, the police also use Forward Intelligence Teams for various activities including surveillance and keeping of intelligence on protesters never arrested, to harass activists and to make targeted arrests, and to follow and keep note of journalists, and to make police records on political activists which result in consequent harassment including frequent vehicle stops and stop-and-searches.

Police publication of “mugshots” of wanted protesters are widely picked up by the media, a technique which also serves to fix the image of all protesters as a series of mugshots, that of lawbreakers. Police arrest numbers also give an impression of criminality, when often activists are released without charge. Tabloids often go after activists with mugshots, private detectives and personal attacks, printing columns that bear striking similarities to police “spotter” cards.

The Met police’s tactics for suppressing dissent are so effective that they have recently sent trainers to repressive Bahrain as well as to Saudi Arabia (see Private Eye, issues passim), where being gay or belonging to a political party are illegal. While the UK police are not murderous in the same way as police in repressive Arab regimes, there are similarities in tactics. Egyptian activists have commented with shock on how violent the UK police are. Before the recent Egyptian revolution, protest was illegal in Egypt.

All of this together not only acts as a huge deterrent to protest but naturalises police violence and blames protesters collectively for all violence. Police involved at Stokescroft stated that “if you were involved in this disorder in any way – and there were more than 400 people that were there – then when we identify you, we will arrest you”. While the photographs on the police site make all of those people look like criminals, so do police photos make the many innocent people featured on spotter cards, and so indeed do the many profiles of activists in tabloid newspapers. 

Because this broad-based negative treatment only happens to those engaged in protest, the forcefulness of this suppression becomes something alien to those outside the event. The minority voice stands without emotional support or corroborative experience by the majority, and is easily dismissed.


<—Read Part Three Here—>



How to suppress a protest movement: part one.

How to suppress a protest movement

It’s time to start talking about our democracy.

Shape the narrative, suppress competing narratives – the story of the student protests:

It began with the Millbank protest. From here the media narrative began to diverge from events on the ground, at first subtly.

Almost at once, attacks began on the protesters as “posh”, when many were non-white, not in any way posh, and there to protest the cutting of EMA, as the BBC photos – which concentrate on violence and property damage – show.

There was consensus by students in opposition to violence against people, and, unlike the BBC photos, most protesters saw no violence and took part in none. Protesters were indiscriminately attacked by police, and all protesters were blamed for the actions of any. There was shock at the anger of ordinary members of society, so much shock that scapegoats had to be found. The violence and property damage at Millbank was shocking because it was political, but not shocking on any British Saturday night.

At every stage actions that are described by those there as organic are blamed on a “tiny minority” – like reds under the bed. This is a narrative of “domestic extremists” that leads to crackdowns, scapegoating, and repression.

Subsequent protests were violently policed, kettled, and horse-charged,  yet all violence was attributed to protesters. The agenda remained firmly focused on violence. Police violence is rarely questioned, and only after evidence is gathered and put forward by members of the public, rather than by the media.

When there is violence the focus is always on “anarchists” and “thugs” rather than the actions of ordinary people. In contrast, hundreds were cautioned merely for entering Millbank, some after police dawn raids. These arrests may go on to affect their future UK and international career prospects, a cost to society far greater than the tens of thousands in property damage to Millbank.

“Dreadful violence” was still the narrative by March, when the cleanup of Trafalgar Square was around 2.5x the normal Saturday night cost. By now, violence to people and property are indissolubly conflated. A narrative that began with concern for the welfare of police and protesters has concluded with political freedom not being worth the price of a mid-range car.

How the narrative is shaped:

None of this comes to pass in a vacuum. The timing of major events is carefully chosen, from the date of the recent Royal Wedding to that of news of the scale of the NHS cuts, which broke on the same day. While scores of pages and supplements over weeks were devoted to the wedding, the effects of the cuts are rarely more than a footnote. Cuts over many years are not a story, the Royal Wedding is.

News stories now break in a different way to the past. Journalists are under increasing time pressure, and while investigative journalism is rarer, churnalism – the swift regurgitation of press releases as fact – is increasingly common. Even the comparatively left-wing Guardian straight-out reports press releases that – as in the case of Soho Square here – are factually untrue.

What editors want in a story is shaped by previous stories in that publication, as well as the feelings of owners and advertisers. In rare cases, a journalist quits over the blatant untruth of their expected output. In many more cases, owners admit to having tight editorial control, such as Murdoch over the UK red-tops. Stories that conflict with advertisers are pulled so frequently that experienced journalists take it as given.

Beginner journalists are told that top of the list for a successful story is topicality, that is that it seamlessly fits with the stories before it as part of one narrative. The first rule for freelancers is that pitches must fit with what already gets published, in a matching style. Any media with submission guidelines ensures that there is no appreciable divergence in copy, with the required prose style necessarily shaping content.

It is this environment that determines what “news” is. The way that news is constructed means that violence is news, whereas the effects of policy, anger, and open political debate are not.

Prevent formation of different narratives:

This monolithic narrative means that people are atomised, lacking contact with language to conceive of and express competing narratives. With the media narrative firmly centred on violence no discussion of the narrative behind the cuts becomes possible there. With spaces against cuts being prevented from forming or being evicted by police, public life becomes by default pro-cuts. With a massive recent drop-off in mentions of “neoliberalism” on the BBC news website, forming any alternative narrative becomes very difficult, even when there is massive evidence behind it.

Over time this unspoken narrative moves to the political right, with US presidents becoming economically massively more right-wing since WWII, the UK Labour Party moving ever rightwards, and politics in the west becoming dominated by neoliberal ideals despite the constant elision of the term, with discussion of it in the media bordering on the forbidden.

The closest the media are able to come to discussing the necessity for the cuts is reporting on a conference, while most dissenting time in media is spent responding to hyperbolic reporting in other media while sticking to the same cuts narrative.

The media also operate around a hierarchy of trust, with official media such as the BBC being perceived as more trustworthy than “just some blogger”, and more than non-media individuals who are seen as “politically motivated”. This takes place while the BBC cannot escape being political, taking the line of the perceived centre, a line which constantly evolves under attack from politicians who want coverage to reflect their interests and use threats to back this up. This leaves a BBC which can question whether Uganda was truly wrong to propose the execution of gays, but which cannot offer or allow any critique of the pro-cuts narrative. The result is a media which predicates questions on unquestioned, unjustified assumptions and posits a choice between a right-wing and far-right alternative.

With cuts affecting different groups over time, it becomes even more difficult to assemble questioning into one narrative. First student cuts were announced, moving onto local service and jobs cuts, and then arts cuts, then NHS cuts and structural marketisation. The effects of these will take place over years and in a geographically dissipated way, making resolving them into one story a herculean task.

This goes hand-in-hand with increasing modern demands on time that disincentivise any break from the mainstream narrative. As working hours increase over time alongside the increase in precarious work, and with rent in London – where there is still work – soaring, the need to work, to have fun, to spend time with friends and family, and not to spend time arguing about politics means that challenges to that narrative grow less frequent, and occur with less force. Even art, which often acts as a challenge to mainstream narratives, is not immune to these changes: in the 1990s 1% of top 10 chart acts came from public schools; in 2010 it is 60%.

All this takes place against a backdrop of many economic experts saying that the cuts are not necessary at all.

What diverging narratives do exist soon fracture across party political lines, with debate becoming about how much to cut rather than cuts being necessary, when most money the UK owes is in fact to the banks that were bailed out. Discussion centres around “how much to cut and where” with no linking with the reasons behind the collapse despite the enormous exposure of the film “Inside Job”.

Though there is an enormous amount of evidence showing that the cuts are not necessary, they are going ahead with any “mainstream” questioning being fragmented and incidental. It is as if the question has been settled before it has even been raised.

Under these established pressures, breaking from the main narrative becomes virtually impossible. Once one dominant narrative is established, a variety of factors inherent in human psychology – change blindness, attention fatigue, and the way in which we are influenced mainly unconsciously and by the people around us – mean that the vast amount of information contradicting this narrative is ignored or subsumed into the unconscious to fuel nightmare or art.

<—Read Part Two—>