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The route to revival for Europe’s left will require a strategy for turning apathy into opportunity.

Traditional political parties in Europe are in long term decline. Membership rolls decrease unabated. Turnout is depressed, and when people do come out to vote it is often more out of hostility to other political parties than an impassioned belief in the platform and vision of their own. Trust, both in the honesty of politicians themselves and in the transformative power of political projects has been eroded rapidly and in its place a spirit of embittered apathy has come to dominate popular consciousness. This is not a problem unique to the left, but Europe’s governments are dominated by the centre-right as the cruelly ironic spectacle of establishment parties selling an ostensibly ‘anti-politics’ message to advance a distinctly political neoliberal agenda has repeatedly proved more resonant with the public than whatever the left can come up with.

And yet at the same time there are countless examples that prove that people have not become naturally more apathetic, or that they do not care about the future of their country, or that any of this is inevitable. From the volatile revolutions in Egypt and Ukraine to the brief but vibrant flowering of the Occupy Movement or the growing participation in groups like 38 Degrees, evidence of the enduring desire for a better world is everywhere. Defeatism or, far worse than that, blaming the people for their disengagement is therefore entirely the wrong approach.

In the age of economic crisis, neoliberalism and its central dogma of rolling back the state is sustained by a lack of belief in the state and the power of politics. It is only logical then, that if we are to overturn the economic hegemony of neoliberalism, a political solution is first required. The Third Way strategy of trying to find an economic solution within the confines of neoliberal discourse in the hope that this will then lead to the solution of the political problem is rapidly losing credibility. This blind alley has meant Social Democrats are inevitably boxed into tighter and tighter spaces (see the endless dithering on Labour’s response to the Bedroom Tax), leaving their core support hollowed out and a vacuum of political radicalism where the left once was.

The opportunity for whatever sort of social movement can fill that vacuum first is great, and we should be concerned about the possibility of right-wing reaction occupying this territory as well as optimistic about doing so ourselves. Italy’s ‘Five Star Movement’ built around the charismatic personality of comedian Beppe Grillo, populism and a ‘big tent’ ethos has perhaps come closest to achieving this aim, although many doubt the ability of M5S to hold on to its popularity if the time comes when they are required to govern effectively. Perhaps a more ideologically coherent and consonant example is the left-wing Greek coalition SYRIZA which has come from virtually nothing to a level of support at the last election that, were it not for the peculiarities of Greek election law, could well have seen them enter government.

Whilst neither are perfect examples by any means (M5S has been accused of far-right tendencies and SYRIZA is undoubtedly partially a product of the specific economic catastrophe in Greece), both these cases point tentatively towards a general model of how to buck the trend of disengagement in the 21st Century. Broadly then, what should such a model look like in the UK?

Firstly, there must be a new offer to members. It is no surprise that membership rates are as low as they are when you consider what being a member actually entails: giving significant sums of money to be treated by the party as a faceless leaflet machine, with nothing more than tokenistic power to influence policy and set the political priorities of the organisation. Alongside genuine internal democracy, local parties need to be social hubs, centres of political education and real debate. It is in political parties’ electoral self-interest to do this, as the activist base will only continue to atrophy otherwise.

Secondly, the ‘safety first’ communication cultures that dominate spin operations must be relaxed. Spin will also inevitably be decentralised by the growth of social media. The risks of allowing politicians to speak their mind are far outweighed by the risks of clinging to the robotic, stultifying language so beloved of most politicians. That a sense of humour and honesty is enough to damn a political career must change.

Lastly, socialists must find a way to once more offer a convincing vision of fundamental change as Thatcher did in the 80s. Too often cosmetic fixes have been the order of the day and a deep analysis of the nature of the problem (which today must surely include the pressures of globalisation) has been side lined. Part of this process must involve the building of alternative progressive narratives that shouldn’t be afraid of being seen as ‘populist’ so long as they avoid demagoguery.

In a recent piece in the Guardian Leo Pantich, editor of the Socialist Register said “The left used to beat itself up, sometimes quite literally, with debates over reform v revolution, parliamentarianism v extra-parliamentarianism, party v movement – as if one ruled out the other. The question for the 21st century is not reform v revolution, but rather what kinds of reforms, with what kinds of popular movements behind them engaging in the kinds of mobilisations that can inspire similar developments elsewhere, can prove revolutionary enough to withstand the pressures of capitalism.”

The long, complicated task of building such a movement must begin in haste.


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Why film is the lowest form of Art. Or is it the highest?

I am sure I am not the first person to point out that Art (with a capital A) cannot be truly understood by only taking into account the artist and their work. It is surely obvious that no one single artist can be expected to master all forms of Art, be it music, writing, dance, fine art, film, photography, performance art, theatre, poetry, or even controversial inclusions to the panoply of Art such as stand-up or video games. Why, therefore, is the audience, reader or viewer of Art so roundly ignored?

A certain little known and even less understood musical iconoclast was no doubt showing a rare moment of sincerity when he declared ‘Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best!’. But why is music, in his well-informed opinion, the best? And for whom is that the case? Is it possible or desirable to assign hierarchies or is the temptation for snobbery and conceit too great? It seems likely that everyone who is musically talented would argue that music is indeed the best, feel rather content in their collective decision and then having established that music is the best, erupt into petty infighting over what constitutes the best music, and so on and so forth.

So what am I getting at here? It seems to me that the way a piece of Art is received by an individual is going to depend not only on the quality of the art-work, but also the mental competencies of the individual. Research into learning difficulties is revealing an ever greater knowledge of Neurodiversity and how the way one person’s brain deciphers the torrent of stimuli that comes pouring in though our various sensory mechanisms can be very different to another person’s process. And so when I read a book, for example, it does not matter so much that I am bad at imagining how the world the author is describing looks, because I am still able to emotionally connect with the characters through the words if the plot and style are up to snuff, which I would argue is far more important, for me at least. On the other hand more visual forms of art such as dance are harder for me to appreciate. Since dance relies on being able to detect and comprehend minutiae of body language and movement (not to mention the choreography as a whole) all I can really do is sit back and try to enjoy the music whilst oo-ing and ahh-ing at the more acrobatic elements of the display. As for art galleries, well I might as well be Wayne Rooney at an antiques show for all the value I get out of it.

However, since I’m not an idiot, I don’t immediately rush to the conclusion that fine art is a load of rubbish. This is why it annoys me so much when some middle-aged reactionary (likely Tory) has the bald-faced arrogance to take the view that, since it’s not Monet, all modern art is hideous and Turner prize winners should be burnt at the stake. Any Art historian worth their salt would tell you that the impressionists faced the same ignorant attitudes when they started too. No, the reason I don’t like fine art very much is not because fine art is bad, but because I’m bad at appreciating fine art. Learn the difference!

Some forms of Art are ‘pure’. They only really rely on one mental faculty. Music and fine art are two such examples. However, most Art is in some sense ‘composite’.  Film is the most thoroughly composite of the lot. You may point out that film is no more composite than theatre or video games, and in a sense you’d be correct. However, with film, the director is king. He can do as many takes as he likes and fiddle in post-production as much as time and budget allow in order to realise his artistic vision. In theatre the director is to a greater extent at the mercy of his actors, and in video games, the designer can only ever include as much complexity as he can expect the player to manage.

‘Purer’ Arts therefore ask more of their audience. The perfection of the Art, if you will, is only ever in relation to the perception of the audience in the realm of the artwork. If music’s not for you, you’re not ever going to get more than fleeting entertainment from it. Film, on the other hand, well, what’s not to like? Film has something for everyone as it operates in almost every realm of perception. This is reflected in the fact that I have rarely met somebody who flatly dislikes going to the pictures; Spielberg has a universality of acceptance that poor old Van Gogh could only dream of. If I go to see a film, what matters most to me and my enjoyment is the narrative, the pacing, the dialogue, the musical score and the overarching political philosophy of the piece. The person sitting next to me might only be interested in the visual style and the quality of the acting. Broadly speaking, the strengths of the film in one area will likely allow us to forgive it in another. Can I be expected to concentrate on everything at once as I would be expected to give my entire attention to a piece of music? Of course not.

If (as you should) you accept that there is a definite skill in the act of experiencing Art (that is, the ability to see Art as more than just some kind of meaningless titillation), then you will see that ‘Purer’ Arts demand more from their audience than the ‘composite’ ones. Indeed, a writer can only express themselves with their words, they have much less to work with than composite artists. Similarly a level of emotional and analytical intelligence is assumed of a reader, proportional to the skill of the author. In the (very rare but very real) occasions that Art has provoked in me a transcendental euphoria is whilst listening to the works of the aforementioned musical frontiersman. I like to think this shows in part a level of compatibility in Neurodiversity between artist and audience.

So maybe, since the work required from both artist and audience is so great, and since the payoff can be so overwhelming, we should consider such forms of Art to be ‘high art’ and the soft, easy, lazy movie-business, infected as it is with what Marx would call commodification, as ‘low art’. Maybe. Should we? Or is this precisely the kind of snobbery I try so hard to avoid? William Blake once said ‘Degrade first the arts if you’d mankind degrade’.

Sure the imperfections of the audience may give greater leeway for imperfection in the artwork if that artwork is a composite one. But is there not also the possibility that composite Art may magnify the effect of its constituent parts? Is film greater than the sum of its parts and hence truly the highest form of Art? I don’t claim to know.

Did you find this essay thought-provoking? Have I provoked one or two of your thoughts?  Having had these thoughts provoked would you like to express them? Then write it in the comments section below!

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