Friday 28 August 2009

Anarchism: a challenge

I've been tagged quite a few times recently by my fellow-bloggers, so it's about time I issued a challenge of my own.

It hasn't escaped my attention that a number of the bloggers whose writings I read on a regular basis are pretty enthusiastic about anarchism and have a particular fondness for the anarchists of the Spanish republic of the 1930s. So much so that two of them even name-check particular anarchist (or anarchist-allied) grouplets from that era in their blog titles / identities. Even those whose politics have moved right- or democratic-left-wards seem to retain a fondness for their anarchist roots, evidenced in their links and reading recommendations.

I write as somebody who has never, in the many twists and turns of his political journey (from Tribunite Labourism via Gramscian Eurocommunism to anti-totalitarian liberal-democratic socialism), been drawn to anarchism, and knows precious little about it. I'm intrigued that people whose opinions I respect are still influenced by this political tradition, and wonder why they think it still has relevance.

Moreover, I question (genuinely - this is not meant to be provocative) whether their fascination with the Spanish anarchists of the Thirties is anything more than misty-eyed nostalgia for the only movement of the revolutionary left that didn't 'go bad'. (Or did it? Were the anarchist murders of priests and nuns during the Civil War any less barbarous than the Falangists' slaughter of anyone with a copy of Rousseau on their shelves?)

So I'm issuing a challenge - in the spirit of genuine intellectual curiosity, rather than political point-scoring. I'd like some of my anarchist-inclined blogging comrades (or anyone else who cares to respond) to explain to me - as briefly as they can - why they remain attracted to anarchism. Specifically, I'd like them to answer these questions:

1. What exactly do you mean by anarchism (which key ideas and thinkers are important to you)?

2. Does the anarchist experiment in the Spanish Republic have any relevance today (and if so what), or is the continuing fascination with it simply rose-tinted leftist nostalgia?

3. What exactly would it mean to implement anarchist ideas in a twenty-first century, globalised economy and polity - and would it even be possible or practicable?

Answers in the comments please - or if you want to take more space, on your own blog. I promise to include extracts from the most interesting responses in a future post.

Update (Saturday)
Responses are already in (see comments below) from The New Centrist, Brian, Les and Roland, plus a 'holding' message from Bob (and a longer response from Brigada on his own blog). I'm impressed. I'll do a proper round-up (and offer my own response to the responses) after the weekend (which lasts three days here in the UK, thanks to the late-summer bank holiday on Monday). In the meantime, thanks to everyone who has contributed so far - anybody else care to join in?

Update (Sunday)
A longer answer just in from The New Centrist - over at his blog. And from The Plump in the comments.

Update (Monday)
Just waiting for a couple more responses (Bob's promised one, and I'm still hoping Poumista will be tempted) before doing a final round-up. Watch this space.

Update (Thursday)
It's been a busy week, so I haven't got round to posting my 'response to the responses' yet. Will try to do so tomorrow.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Some books

While I was away on holiday, Bob tagged me, seeking my response to this question:
Which books written for academic purposes deserve, should find (or in some cases have found) a more general readership among intelligent people who are either (a) non-academics, or (b) aren't academic specialists in the discipline that the book is written for?
You can find out which books others have suggested by following the links in this post. Bob himself has already stolen some of my thunder by nominating E.P.Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, which would probably have been top of my list too, and I agree with everything he says about the book.

In coming up with my own list, I found myself in a quandary. Should I choose books that have been important to me in the past, but with whose ideas I now find myself at odds? For example, I would once have argued that everyone could benefit from reading some Foucault - The History of Sexuality, say, or Discipline and Punish - if only to have their received notions about how ideas develop up-ended. But these days, keenly aware as I am of the philosophical and political dead-end to which Foucauldianism can lead, I'd rather people read Janet Afary's and Kevin Anderson's Foucault and the Iranian Revolution to see the consequences of his variety of pseudo-Marxian anti-humanism and cultural relativism.

Book that have survived the ebb and flow of my changing opinions are rare: Thompson's classic is one of the few exceptions. A number of possibilities suggested themselves - including books about language, gender and identity that have shaped my thinking and my academic work over the years. But then, looking at the dog-eared, cover-less copy of The Making of the English Working Class on my bookshelf, I came up with a different criterion. I would only choose books that, like the Thompson, were falling apart through repeated use, offering some indication of how important they've been in my intellectual formation. This led me immediately to these three choices:

If I can't have Thompson, I'd better choose the book that was its constant companion on my bookshelves in my early twenties, and which had a comparable impact on my thinking as a young literature graduate, starting work in adult and community education, trying to unite his passion for literature and history with an equal passion for political change. I was fortunate enough to attend some of Williams' lectures as an undergraduate, and though (as with Thompson) I now find myself questioning many of the political positions that he took, his profound humanism, depth of cultural understanding and commitment to the emancipation of the class into which he was born, remain impressive, outlasting the shallow over-theorised posturings of those (like his former student Terry Eagleton) who rejected his ideas as outdated.

I bought my copy in the early '80s, from Centerprise Bookshop on Stoke Newington High Street, when I was working on a community project in the area, and at the high watermark of my attachment to Eurocommunism, when I was an avid reader of Marxism Today and a partisan for the 'New Times' thinking of Stuart Hall et al. I took the book, and its ideas, with me when I moved into academia, and Gramsci's theories of hegemony, civil society, organic intellectuals, etc have continued to inform my thinking. Although I no longer espouse revolutionary communism, whether of the 'Euro' or any other variety, I think the Sardinian Marxist's ideas are still of enormous value in understanding the dynamics of social and political change.

My well-thumbed copy comes from the same period of my life as the Gramsci. Most of the people I worked with, and for, in those days, were African or African-Caribbean and this was a book that enabled many to feel pride in their black British heritage - and opened the eyes of white people like me to a hidden dimension of our history. As well as being a terrific historical narrative, Fryer's book also offers a convincing analysis of the development of British racism, rooted in slavery and our imperial history. Over the years I've used extracts in teaching innumerable times, and I admire the book for many of the same reasons that I value Thompson's volume. My personal copy also has sentimental associations. I inherited it from one of my students, a young African-Caribbean woman, an ex-prisoner and former drug addict, who had just begun a new life as a sociology undergraduate, when she died suddenly of pneumonia.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Hunks and monks

On Monday the ‘Faith’ section of the Times website carried a feature on Mexican hunk and Hollywood star Eduardo Verastegui, who ‘chose to sacrifice a glittering film career after rediscovering his Catholic faith.’ It seems the actor whose ‘brooding looks and aquamarine eyes’ once ‘attracted thousands of (invariably screaming) female fans’ decided to give it all up after an encounter with an English language coach who was a committed Catholic.

The moment of truth came, apparently, when the coach asked if Verastegui believed his body was ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit’. When the actor said 'yes', the coach challenged him with 'why are you living in a way that breaks the Commandments and offends God?' Tears and confession followed. (Incidentally you can take a peek at the pre-conversion Eduardo displaying his 'temple' to the world here.)

We’re told that Verastegui is now a changed man:

Today, the 35-year-old actor is a daily Mass-goer, committed to abstaining from sex before marriage, who flies to Darfur to help the starving, provides financial help for women considering abortions and organises house-building missions in Mexico.

All very worthy, I'm sure. But what the Times article omits to tell us, for some reason, is that the re-born Verastegui has also become a prominent campaigner in support of plans to outlaw gay marriage in California. Now, the perfectly-formed Verastegui is welcome to his new-found traditionalist views on sex and marriage, but he has no business seeking to impose them on others, and as a recent immigrant (from Mexico, of all places) he should have greater respect for the long-established separation of church and state in his adopted country.

I came across the piece on Verastegui shortly after reading the very different thoughts of another Catholic convert (and political conservative), Eve Tushnet, who happens to be gay. In an article wonderfully entitled 'Romoeroticism', Eve writes about same sex friendships in traditional religious cultures, and describes the sensual attraction of Catholicism for some gay Victorian religious seekers. She also draws on Catholic author Alan Bray's classic study of same-sex friendships in England from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.

Reading Tushnet reminded me of the visit we made, while in Tuscany the other week, to the abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, in whose great cloister is displayed a series of beautiful frescoes depicting the life of St. Benedict, by Giovanni Antonio Batsi - better known as Il Sodoma. Commentators differ on whether his nickname is a corruption of a family name, or a reflection of his sexual preferences. Many of the paintings certainly have an erotic charge, including the depiction of a beautiful young man at the right-hand edge of this fresco.

One of Sodoma's panels at Monte Oliveto shows two monks in bed together (interestingly, this is the only fresco missing from the abbey's website). The official interpretation is that this was a way of keeping warm on winter nights, while unofficially it's well known that many same-sex couples entered monasteries together as a way of pursuing their relationship away from the public gaze.

There's evidence, then, that the Catholic Church has, at times in its history, found ways of tolerating and even (Alan Bray argues) blessing and celebrating faithful same-sex relationships. Someone should tell Eduardo Verastegui.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

To Italy and back

We arrived back from Italy on Sunday night, after two gloriously hot weeks renewing our acquaintance with our favourite valley in southern Tuscany. The highlights of our stay included sampling Brunello at an ancient vineyard outside Montalcino, and hearing white-cowled monks singing Gregorian chant at the beautiful Romanesque abbey of Sant'Antimo (see above).

Besides the excellent food and wine, the usual volume of holiday reading was consumed. After reading Arthur Herman's eye-opening book on the Scottish Enlightenment (which neatly brought together my interest in my Scottish family history and my fascination with the late 18th century) in St. Ives, I started off in Italy with David McCullough's 1776: Britain and America at War (who would have thought military history could be so gripping?), moved on to Iris Origo's autobiographical memoir (we visited her house and gardens during our stay), took an enjoyable diversion through Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon (every bit as witty and touching as his New York collection), then made a quick dash through Sarah Wise's The Italian Boy (in this case the link was with my early 19th century London ancestors), before launching into Doris Kearns Goodwin's monumental Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, in which I'm still absorbed. (It's an Obama favourite, of course. I notice, by the way, that he's taken another McCollough volume - on John Adams - to Martha's Vineyard. Fat chance he'll get to do any historical reading with his health care reforms being assailed from both left and right.)

Now it's back to work - and to blogging, once I've caught up with what I've been missing while I've been away.

Friday 7 August 2009

Signing off

Last summer we spent a fortnight here. We liked it so much we're going back.

All being well, this will be the view from my window for the next couple of weeks:

From tomorrow things will be quiet around here until about 24th August.

Here comes the sun

Tomorrow it will be 40 years since the iconic zebra crossing photo that adorns the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road was taken. As I write, I have beside me the scratched copy of the LP, with its torn and dog-eared sleeve, that I bought from a friend in the playground when I was about fourteen, back in the days when no self-respecting greatcoat-wearing grammar-school boy could be seen walking to and from school without an LP - sorry album - under his arm.

I just missed being part of the Beatles generation. They were the soundtrack of my childhood, rather than my youth. The first single that we bought for our family's Dansette record player, when I was about seven, was I Feel Fine; I remember collecting pictures of the group to put in my TV Times sticker album; and playing in the street we used to divide into gangs based on whether we preferred the Beatles or the Stones.

Nevertheless, the first album I ever owned (I was thirteen) was the glossy, black boxed set of Let It Be, which cost the (then) astronomical sum of £3 (most albums were about 15 shillings, I think). I recall walking home from school with the record under my arm, and a friend who was a classical music buff (he's now a concert pianist) scoffing: '£3! For a load of shouting!' Such was the cultural divide in the early Seventies.

But by the time I was in my mid-teens, very little of the music we listened to owed anything (at least consciously) to the Beatles. Bowie and the punks looked to American bands like the Velvets and the Doors as key influences, and liking the Beatles even began to seem rather uncool. I think this was even more true for the generations of the '80s and '90s that followed us (Oasis being the exception that proves the rule). And today, I think you'd find very few British teenagers with more than even a passing knowledge of the Beatles' music.

This is in stark contrast to other countries, particularly in Europe, where the band's appeal has never really waned. In this BBC report, it's striking that almost everyone having their picture taken on the famous crossing is from outside Britain. The evanescence of the Fab Four's appeal in the country of their birth is probably the inevitable downside of the intense, fast-turnover nature of our pop culture, the upside of which is our deserved reputation for frantic innovation. Conversely, the greater appreciation of pop-musical heritage in many European countries is the positive side of musical cultures that are often static, repetitive and slow to move away from established styles.

To sign off for the week - for a couple of weeks, in fact, as we're off to Italy for a fortnight - here's George Harrison performing Here Comes The Sun:

Thursday 6 August 2009

We're all doomed, ctd

When Vincent Nichols was named as the new Archbishop of Westminster, there were those who hoped that the consecration of this worldly-wise, media-friendly Merseysider might prefigure a more positive engagement with modernity on the part of English Catholicism. Imagine (as David Aaronovitch does) how refreshing it would have been if, in his first major interview since coming into post, Nichols had said the following about the popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace:
I know many people express concern about this networking, but I think there's much that is positive about it. It's just another aspect of progress.
But of course he didn't. Instead the new Archbishop had this to say:

I think there's a worry that an excessive use or an almost exclusive use of text and emails means that as a society we're losing some of the ability to build interpersonal communication that's necessary for living together and building a community.

We're losing social skills, the human interaction skills, how to read a person's mood, to read their body language, how to be patient until the moment is right to make or press a point.

Too much exclusive use of electronic information dehumanises what is a very, very important part of community life and living together.


Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships. They throw themselves into a friendship or network of friendships, then it collapses and they're desolate.

Which isn't to say that the rise of social networking is an entirely positive phenomenon: though as Aaronovitch says, if his own daughters are anything to go by, 'what seems to have happened as a result of all this inferior computing is a continuation of friendships beyond the bust-ups that happen when kids separate to go to different schools or colleges. In this respect, my progeny seem to keep their friends longer than my own generation used to.' As a fellow parent of teenagers, I would have to agree.

As Aaronovitch suggests, a positive response to social networking from the Archbishop would be difficult to imagine, because 'it wouldn’t fit his world view, so, in the context of the interview it was just another regret about the decline of community and authenticity in the modern world.' In other words, Vincent Nichols appears to be as much an adherent of the Private Frazer school of theology as his predecessor. Aaronovitch continues:

I thought, as I read it, does the Archbishop not recall that every generation says this about the subsequent one? That theatre and dancing sapped the martial spirit, that radio killed live performance and atomised the audience, that video killed the radio star and atomised the audience, that comics meant the end of reading, that TV meant the end of reading, that computers meant the end of reading, and that now texting means the end of friendship? That modernity (at whatever level we have now reached) threatens our essential human selves (whatever they are)?

Aaronovitch concludes: 'Archbishops, it seems, can exist only in a declining world.' And he goes on to chart the prevalence of a culturally pessimist - or 'declinist' - discourse among contemporary commentators (I think we know who he means).

Of related interest: a confession from Brigada Flores Magon.

And kind-of-related to all of this, and to my recent posts about ill-informed blogophobia, I recommend this mostly fair and balanced assessment of the impact of blogging on journalism, by Michael Massing.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Camping it up

I've got a lot of time for Richard Dawkins, but every once in a while he comes up with a rather silly idea. One example was his suggestion that non-believers should describe themselves as 'Brights' (oh dear). Now he's organised an atheist summer camp, apparently to rival the 'faith camps' to which the children of religiously-minded parents are shipped off every year. The idea is a mistake on so many levels. Firstly, it contradicts Dawkins' own nostrum that imposing parental beliefs on children is a form of child abuse: is instruction in atheism any different, and do you really think any children are going to sign up for this without parental prompting? Secondly, spending your summer doing philosophy is going to sound pretty naff to all but the geekiest kids.

But most of all, the idea is wrong because it's another instance of atheists and secularists apeing the religious, and trying to get a piece of their action, rather than doing their own thing. Other examples of this include humanists campaigning for a slot on Thought for the Day (as if any philosophy worth its salt could be summed up in a trite five-minute sermon) and (going back in history a bit) nineteenth-century radicals setting up 'Socialist Sunday Schools'. It plays into the hand of those who characterise atheism as just another 'faith', with its own received dogmas and fundamentalist adherents.

Instead of consigning their offspring to a spell of godless indoctrination during the holidays, why don't atheist (or secularist, or humanist) parents simply take them along to art galleries, museums and concerts, or to the beach, or the countryside, to show them the (natural and human) world in all its glory - and to demonstrate that you don't need a faith, or even a substitute anti-faith, to find life meaningful and worthwhile.

Still, at least Dawkins' atheist camp is infinitely healthier than what's on offer for Gazan children this summer:
Children in Hamas summer camps reenacted the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit in the presence of top Hamas officials, according to pictues obtained by The Jerusalem Post.

According to Israeli defense officials, more than 120,000 Palestinian children are spending the summer in Hamas-run camps. In addition to religious studies, the children undergo semi-military training with toy guns.

At a recent summer camp graduation ceremony, the children put on a show reenacting the June 2006 abduction of Schalit.
Now that really is child abuse.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Five words

Bob is peeved that I haven't responded to his 'five words' meme. My excuse? I was away last week, and anyway, his invitation was buried in a comments thread which I've only just found.

Anyway, here are the words that Bob has chosen for me, and my response to each of them:

One of the interesting aspects of this game is trying to guess why your 'tagger' has chosen the words that s/he thinks say something about you. So I'm not sure if Bob is responding to my habit of linking to tracks by classic soul singers, such as Solomon Burke and Sam Cooke, or to my continuing, conflicted interest in religion and spirituality. Since religion comes up later, I'll opt for the former. When I was a teenager in the Seventies, a white grammar-school boy on an Essex housing estate, soul music was definitely not de rigeur. First we were partisans for progressive rock, then for Bowie and glam, and finally punk - all very white and (as the NME used to say) 'rockist'. I didn't really get into soul and black music generally until the Eighties - when I was working in a mostly-black area of north London. Then it became a matter of working my way through the racks of 'best of' CDs - Al Green, Percy Sledge, Marvin Gaye, and so on. I'm sure the reason my teenage son is such a soul aficionado (though, like the rest of his generation, he insists on referring to the music as 'R 'n' B', an appellation that my generation associates with Muddy Waters, BB King, et al), is that this was the music we were playing around the time he was born (playing a certain Percy Sledge track is guaranteed to reduce H. and me to tears, evoking as it does that precious time).

I used to say that the veteran Portuguese writer was my favourite novelist, until I remembered that I've only ever finished one of his books. However, that book - The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis - ranks as one of the best (if not the best) works of fiction that I've ever read. In this phantasmagoric exploration of Lisbon, Saramago's usual quirky and meandering prose is held in check by an intriguing plot and aborbing sense of place - not the case in the other novels of his that I've tried. When I first read the book some fifteen or twenty years ago, its author's politics - he's a lifelong Communist - were an added enticement to me. That was before my own disillusionment with 'democratic centralism', and before I discovered that Saramago's involvement in the Portuguese revolution, far from being heroic, revealed the Stalinist tendencies of his (and his party's) politics. Not to mention my disappointment that a writer capable of such great prose and historical imagination could make such foolish, naive and offensive comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, as he did notoriously on a trip to the West Bank. A shining illustration, then, that creative genius and political stupidity can and often do co-exist.

It was reading Saramago, and then moving on to the writings of Fernando Pessoa (Ricardo Reis was one of the latter's many 'heteronyms') and thence to other fictional depictions of Lisbon that made me fall in love with the Portuguese capital before I'd even visited it. Our visit there a few years ago, to celebrate a special birthday, only deepened my attachment to the place - and to the language, music, literature and history of the city and the country. OK, so I had my camera stolen while riding on a tram to the Alfama, and there are other aspects of Lisbon that leave a lot to be desired - the number of disabled people begging in doorways is (or was then) truly shocking. But the faded beauty of the tree-covered squares, the jumble of back streets, the mournful sound of fado, entered into my soul.

As I've mentioned on this blog a number of times, I had a brief flirtation with Buddhism a few years ago, and though I was quite deeply involved for a while, in the end it didn't 'take'. From time to time, when I'm particularly stressed or under pressure, I remember some of the meditation practices I learned, and still find them helpful. But the underlying philosophy - of detachment from the world and heroic, individualistic spiritual effort - finally clashed with my deeply-rooted interests in politics, history, culture. I think a lot of westerners who are attracted to Buddhism are like me: refugees from the 'Abrahamic' faiths looking for a purer, simpler, less cluttered version of the religion they've rejected, and projecting their own needs on to a thought system which is actually hostile to taken-for-granted western ideas, such as notions of historical progress. And I now find the influence of Buddhism, and the 'New Age' generally, on disciplines in which I have some involvement - such as psychology - generally negative.

Having run the gamut of Christian denominations (baptised a Congregationalist, brought up a Methodist, attended Anglican churches, then became a Catholic) and then explored eastern alternatives (see above) I finally realised that what I am, deep down, is a humanist. That's not to rule out the possibility of a return to religion - as regular readers will be aware, I have a continuing love-hate fascination with Christianity, and particularly with Catholicism - but it would have to be a Christian humanism that I espoused. I have a great respect for the tradition of Christian (and Jewish) humanism, and one of my arguments with much contemporary religiosity is that it seems to have forgotten this heritage and sees humanism not as a partner for dialogue, but as a sworn enemy. The same thing goes for secularism, which is a close cousin to humanism in my book. One of my constant themes on this blog is that secularism, rightly understood (as allowing faith and civil society their separate, rightful spheres of action) is essential not only to the flourishing of a humane, tolerant, dynamic society - but to the health of the religious sphere also.

Monday 3 August 2009

Kolakowski and anti-semitism

I've written a guest post for Engage.