February Blog There goes the neighbourhood



1)  Chic by Growl

I recently moved into a new neighbourhood in Islington. My flat is  in  a large Peabody Estate, off the Essex Road, quite close to the area which Ruth Glass  made the object of her famous study on ‘gentrification’. I am living in one of the earliest ‘ model dwellings’  built in the 1860’s for the ‘industrious working classes’ by  the great Canadian philanthropist and which  became  an inspiration for the  development of social housing in Britain. Today the estate’s inhabitants are a cross section of all those  who cannot  afford to buy or rent in the private housing market, and increasingly this is including middle class professional people  like myself. A recent study of local housing conditions concluded that by 2020  you would have to be either very rich or very poor to remain in the area at all.  Ironically, given the association with ’gentrification’, it is the middle classes who are being squeezed out by London’s rampant housing boom.
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By no coincidence, as housing has  moved rapidly up the political agenda, the theme of the ‘squeezed middle  class’  has become a major  focus of political debate. It is, of course, this fraction of the electorate  where swing voters are concentrated and which will  decide the outcome of the next general election. Ed Milliband has  raised the spectre of  insecurity  amongst  ‘hard working families’  who are unable  to buy their way into the property owning democracy, unless or until  they inherit   a house from their parents.  The coalition government countered with a scheme to assist first time buyers, but this only served to fuel house price  inflation, given the chronic   under-supply of affordable homes. They then raised the definition of ‘affordable’  up to 80% of market value, so that in desirable neighbourhoods  only people on middle incomes  could  afford them. They also  imposed a ‘bedroom tax’ on lower income families who were supplementing  their meager earnings or benefits by renting out a room to lodgers, thus  effectively destroying one of the key   support structures in working class  communities. The  war on poverty  really has turned out to be a war against the poor.

Much less commented upon is the impact of the housing crisis and austerity measures on the  urban fabric and, in particular on the quality of neighbourhood life.  For some commentators, the ‘neighbourhood’  in the sense of a place with a distinctive reputational  identity, comprising a shared territory of belonging   associated with a residential community, no longer exists. Such urban bonds have melted into the thin air of post modernity, and been replaced  with  de-territorialised, largely virtual communities of interest and  association,  constituting non-place  realms of  networking conducted  through new social media.

Certainly , for many people ‘the neighbourhood’ is not just  an area within walking distance from home, but also comprises a more extended and flexible navigational space.  At the same time there has been a process of re-territorialisation  in  which physical, social and cultural geographies  become ever more impacted , and post codes take on an ever more  site-specific  meanings, for example as marking property hot spots, or  gang ‘turf’.  So, for example,  young people’s sense of neighbourhood may be based on a virtual peer network that extends across  the city or even the globe, but the real space they inhabit may be increasingly circumscribed by lack of economic opportunity or social constraint.  You may be able  to talk to mates on the other side of town, but  you may be too poor or too scared , to actually  go and visit them.

My neighbourhood  is traversed  by Essex Road,  a busy artery  that marks  a boundary between the heavily gentrified  area to the west  abutting on to Upper Street, where  expensive boutiques and restaurants  rule OK  and  the  large concentrations of  social housing to the east. But if it is a front line, it is not one characterized by social tension, but  rather by a pattern of co-existence   between  the relatively affluent and those on  low incomes. The two groups  go to different shops, use different facilities, have  different life styles. So an art gallery, a designer bike shop, a Peruvian restaurant, a specialist fishmongers, a taxidermist, an  art deco  furniture shop  and a luxury  bathroom showroom  jostle  next to a cost cutter, a chippie, a bookies, a traditional bakers,  a pawnbrokers, and  an internet  shop patronised by people who cannot afford a computer.  The public library  which is only open every other day,  thanks to the cuts, is housed in a very distinguished Victorian building,  and  functions like informal  social club   for the unemployed, the retired, and others with time on their hands. There are a few places, like the local Co-Op  where the classes mix, or at least  share the same check out, but otherwise it is a case of ‘ chic by growl’ : the young trendies  swish past, often in jogging mode,  while the poor, the desperate  and the sick  grumble amongst themselves as they trudge to and from the low price shops and caffs.

There are some real neighbourhood characters who bridge the gap. There is Moshe who cycles in from Dalston everyday to open his record shop. And it is a record shop – he has several thousand vintage  Vinyls  for sale. He began by building on his own collection – he is an aficionado  of 60’s  indie rock, jazz and blues – and now must have one of the most comprehensive in London. He grew up in the old Jewish East End, before it turned into Banglatown, but  unlike the rest of his family he didn’t join the diaspora  to Ilford and Golders Green, preferring to  go on living in the street, and the house where he was born.  He sits in his  higgledy piggle emporium, wearing an elegant blue suede yarmulke, ready and willing to chew the fat with whoever  comes in and  wants to pass the time of day; even if they don’t make a purchase, they get to hear a lot of great music while arguing the toss about politics, sport, or religion.

And  then there is Mister Hello. Mister Hello can be found standing outside the bookies, come rain or shine, dressed in a large woolen overcoat that has seen  better days and which he wears even in a heatwave. He does’nt exactly beg, but if people stop and pass the time of day with him, which many do, he usually asks them  if they can spare a few bob because he has just that morning got a sure fire tip on a horse; he will, of course, pay you back as soon as he collects his winnings, and even buy you a drink or two to celebrate. He sure  has the blarney and it’s a pleasure to part with a pound just to hear the lilt of his voice as he extols the virtues of the nag he has pinned his hopes on.  It is not clear whether he ever actually bets  any of the money, but the next time you see him he will wave you over and tell you the most elaborate and often hilarious story about why he was let down by the horse. He is a  great gossip  and a mine of information about what is going on in the locality.  To be acknowledged by Mr Hello, and he reserves his ‘hello’s  for his regulars, is to be  recognized as fully belonging to the neighbourhood.  So although from one standpoint he might be regarded as a tramp, a beggar,a con man  and a social parasite, he plays  an important and entirely positive role in sustaining the moral economy of the neighbourhood, whether as raconteur, news reporter, or stand up comedian. His presence makes possible those small acts of generosity and concern which we understand by  ‘neighbourliness’  and without him life would be less rich, even and especially for the poor.

Moshe is worried  that his landlords are going to increase his rent to the point where he will no longer be able to afford to stay there. In a time of recession,  the middle class cut back on their hobbies and although he has his loyal customers who travel from all over London and beyond to browse his ware, business is not good. And there is talk that William Hill’s, the bookmakers, may close and be replaced by a new Sainsbury’s or a Café Nero. Many of the other amenities on which the less well-off rely  are similarly threatened. If, one day  we find  that Mr Hello  has disappeared and been replaced by a security guard, then  we might really say ‘there goes the neighbourhood.

2) Lines of Desire

There  is a school of   radical urbanists, inspired by the French situationists who celebrate the city, and in particular its streets and public spaces as   adventure playgrounds,  sites of   strange encounter and chance association  which open  up new human possibilities and subvert the  rational ‘lines of desire’ imposed on the human traffic flow by the planners. These  metropolitan optimists see the city as offering the potential for a  different, more heterogeneous, and fulfilling set of relationships  than is afforded by the private domestic sphere.
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They are opposed by an ever more vociferous and powerful group of metropolitan pessimists who see the city as a site of  danger and degradation,  and  have  elaborated  a whole genre  of precautionary tales  about the terrible things that happen to people  who come to them. This position unites   anti-urban  romantics like Blake  with his inveighing against ‘London Babylon’     and conservative moralists who long to return to  an organic society’ in which there is  a place for everyone and everyone knows   their place.

Both schools of thought agree on the risky, potentially transgressive nature of metropolitan life, although they invest it with opposite meaning and value.   Take for example   the   recent ‘right to be naked in public’  campaign. These ‘urban naturists’   seems to be engaged in a classic strategy for  hiding  in  the light ( pace Dick Hebdige). Certainly from a psychoanalytic point of view  exhibitionism  represents a cover story for what has been inhibited, not an act of liberation. If the campaign is cited by  conservative moralists as an example of the kind of    things people get up to if left to their own devices,   it is because it appears to transgress so dramatically the public/private distinction. But just as I think  it could be argued that in fact it does no such thing,  so too the scandalised   response  does not so much  transcend these oppositions as restate  them. The assumption is that  the domestic world  is a safe haven whose intimacies have somehow to be extended into the public realm. But the fact is  that  the realm of  domestic life is  far  more dangerous and  open to public inspection than we would like to think. Nosy or noisy neighbours, and poor sound insulation ensure that for many people, especially those living in the worst housing conditions,  the ‘private’   is all too public. And, of course,  most of the violence  and abuse   that goes on   takes place indoors.  If you are  in this situation, you  may indeed want to escape  into   the safety of crowded  thoroughfares or shopping malls to enjoy some sense of  freedom  and privacy. Another    way of hiding in the light.

My unease at the underlying premises  of the city- as- transgression argument goes beyond these particulars and concerns exactly whose experience of  public/private space is being referenced here. Many of the discussions are curiously non class, age, gender  and ‘race’ specific. I think this may be partly  because they remains primarily philosophical  and at least for my taste, are not sufficiently grounded in sociological reality principles.

0In this tradition of writing, the flaneur, the poet, the artist, the postmodern  ethnographer, make the running as the key ‘interlocutors’ of the urban experience ;  all  of them,of course,   feel most at home, literally and figuratively, in  the  kinds of  metropolitan spaces and places  where cultural and social mixes are at their most glamorous and flamboyant.  So the  democratic challenge seems to be to find  hints of  cosmopolitan life style or  exotic otherness in less promising milieux – like suburban high streets  or  market towns, or  run down public housing estates. We become motorway flaneurs,  conoisseurs of parking lots, collectors of invisible signs of the times. Wherever there are muppies ( multiculturalised   upwardly mobile young people) you  will find evidence of people looking to  create or consume this kind of do it yourself  urbanism, even if  no amount of mobile phoning is going to get the rest out of their familiar ruts !

The fact is that  issues  of  safety and danger, adventure and precaution, intimacy and exposure, are highly  specific to  particular conjunctures of  people and places in  a way that defies ready  generalisation about public/private space. Perhaps  to get our bearings  on these micro territories in a less socially abstracted way  we need a comparative urban phenomenology supplied by local inhabitants  themselves. Consider  for example the  varieties of  hopes, fears, expectations   and actual  strategies of circumnavigation being enacted along  the High Street on a bright Spring Saturday morning  by :

  •  A toddler in a push chair
  •  Two teenagers looking for their friends
  •  A Family shopping expedition
  •  A party of sightseers  from an American air base
  •  A chronic sciatica  sufferer
  •  An agoraphobic
  •  An elderly woman who has been the victim of street crime
  •  A homeless schizophrenic

It seems unlikely  that  the range of such experiences will best be captured by using  abstract philosophical language viz ‘being like through being other’  or ‘making visible the non public’ (Taussig). When it comes to setting these accounts  against one another, we  need some alternative way of establishing the limits/ conditions under which each could be  somehow accommodated within  a  single, if multivocal, narrative  frame. That is the task we have set ourselves in Living Maps in creating a   new Atlas of East London consisting  of maps made by groups of local people in areas undergoing  rapid   social and demographic  change. It is an exercise in citizen social science  that offers a different way of  generating innovative urban policy based  on locally situated  knowledge  but operating within a wider   trans-local frame.

3) Grist to the Mill ?

I recently had the experience of meeting a young historian  who was working on a PhD  about the politics  of urban regeneration. He was interested in showing how  neo-liberal policies were being implemented  and in the process much of the radical  thinking about  community development and its relation to popular planning which took place in the 1960’s and 70’s were in danger of being consigned  to the dustbins of history. He was an Oxford  graduate, now  based in Berkeley, and seemed very knowledgeable  about urban social movements; in particular he was interested to find out  about  campaigns  in  East London  against  the London Docklands Development Corporation  in the 1980’s  and the more recent  anti-Olympic movement.  He had read my book on East London and the Olympics and was fulsome in its praise, but I should perhaps have been forewarned of what was to come when he said that it had created a new kind   of ‘academic  space’.  Of course  I knew what he meant : the book tries to address  a set of issues that are normally wrapped up in a heavily theoretical  discourse   using an idiom that is accessible to people who do not  have a PHD in Cultural Studies.
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However as he went on talking  I realized, with a sinking feeling, that  in addition  to being  ferociously intelligent, he was enormously ambitious and however much he protested that the purpose of  doing the thesis  was ‘political’ in fact it was mainly  to advance his professional career. Of course  there is always a trade off, and the sublimation of political ambitions in academic  ones has a long history,  not least  amongst 60’s radicals like myself.  But what I found depressing  was the fact that  he had no real feeling for the  struggles  he was researching.  They were simply so much grist to his academic mill. For example, the people involved in the campaign  against  Canary Wharf  were largely dockers, or rather ex-dockers, who had seen first their livelihoods and then literally the ground under their feet  destroyed by Thatcherism. But as far as this  young man was concerned   their only significance was that they were pegs on which to hang his  argument  about neo-liberalism.  He wanted to get his hands on archive materials  about the campaign, but it never occurred to him to go and actually interview the people  who had organized it.

I  expect this young historian  will  write a brilliant thesis, will get a post in a prestigious university   and be launched on a career which he will pursue with great energy and determination, to  become a professor at an early age. You might say, well  what else could he do?  Academic life  has always  been highly competitive  and individualistic,  and in the age of  the ‘neo-liberal university’ the   public intellectual  culture  which supported critical theory and socially engaged research, and  sought to embed  this work in projects of direct benefit   to local communities, has all but withered away. Moreover  long term commitment   to protracted struggles  is very difficult to sustain, especially amongst young people whose precarious economic situation   predisposes to  short termism, if not outright opportunism as they seek to find a niche for themselves in the world. My young historian mentioned a friend of his who had been involved in a  campaign against the austerity cuts, using social media to mobilize protests. Was the campaign still going, I enquired. No, the leader had gone off to China  to get a job  and the campaign had folded.

Contemporary urban politics  is about  the way  the power of capital   is ever more highly concentrated  and the power of the State in civil society   ever more widely disseminated, especially through the new technologies of surveillance  which operate through social media. It is a double whammy which  makes it  very difficult for urban social movements, like the campaigns  in East London, to find an effective and sustainable  point of purchase, to  leverage  additional resources and amenities that will have a real redistributive effect.  Despite all the talk of ‘empowerment’ and ‘ convergence’ (i.e. that the life chances of children born in East London will in the future  be the same as those born in Kensington and Chelsea),  the spatial distribution  of poverty and  powerlessness becomes both more intensive, concentrated in specific  neighbourhoods, and  regionally specific ( viz the North/South divide)  while the engines   of wealth creation remain in ever fewer,  unregulated hands.

There is no magical way to unlock  this set of contradictions, no amount of ‘critical thinking’, however dialectical  will do it, but it is still possible to glimpse  the possibilities, if we remain alert enough  to  what David Graeber  has called ‘actually existing communism’. By this he means the cultures of mutual   aid   that install themselves  wherever  a hiatus occurs in the apparently seamless integration of the production, distribution, circulation and consumption of commodities. We do not have to believe, like the old anarcho-syndicalists or council communists, that we  can build a whole economy and society on these  fragile instances,  but we can, nevertheless, glimpse in   their continual re-invention,  the conditions of a different, more egalitarian  and human society. Which brings us full circle  back to Mr Hello.

Ben Cohen – My Story No Mean City

Ben Cohen Slide Tribute



Click on the picture to view the slide tribute to Ben Cohen





Also, please check out the interview with Ben entitled  MyStory – No Mean City: Memories of the Gorbals in the twenties

Ben Cohen’s Obituary, click on image to see a readable image.

An Unseasonal Triptych

Trump L’Oeil

Like most people on what we used to call the Left,  I guess I have been struggling to come to terms with the result of the US Presidential election, not to mention the  UK vote to leave the EU and the gains by the Far Right in Eastern Europe. It is fatally easy to join up the dots and see the emergence of  authoritarian populism and national isolationism as an irresistible force sweeping across the Western world, demolishing what remains of the advances made by Social Democracy and the Labour  movement  following the defeat of Fascism in 1945. We never dreamt, in our worst nightmares,  that anti-globalisation protest  would take this form. Faced with this circumstance, the Liberal Left commentariat have done what they do best and engaged in a frenzied  bout of  breast beating and straw clutching, a difficult manoeuvre at the best of times,  but  which some, like  Owen Jones  or Gary Younge in the Guardian and  David Runciman in the LRB  have managed  brilliantly. Say seven Mea Culpas  and three Hail Gramsci’s before writing your next  essay in  ‘deconstructing common sense’ and you may yet live to become a footnote in some-one else’s  history of these ‘New Times’.
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But let’s suppose for a moment that  the   outcome of these elections and the  shift in the tectonic plates of  social  ideology  of which they are the symptomatic expression,  cannot be  entirely laid at the door of a disgruntled  working class  and petit bourgeoisie who feel left behind by globalisation, abandoned by the Labour Party  and  resentful at the patronising concern about their predicament shown by  an intellectual  elite  ( who have clearly done well out of  the shift to a knowledge,   culture and service based economy, that has made so many manual workers  redundant).  Instead let us entertain the possibility   that what attracts  this electorate to Trump or UKIP is not the substance of their policies, let alone personalities,   but the style of their address, the sheer transparency of  their political  motivation. For once  what you see,  with all its  brashness and  bigotry, is what you  get; there is  no bland phraseology  or weasel words which conceal the  vested interests driving the agendas of the mainstream parties.  The tropes of   Capital and Labour, those  tired avatars which  still govern  routinised  conflicts over  the distribution of income, wealth and life chances, dissolve into a  heady but seamless rhetoric of the People Against the  Establishment,  the Forces of Change    against the Status Quo. And yet this in- your- face  attitude  is  just that, a  calculated pose, a mirage of transparency,  a claim to ‘authenticity’ carefully simulated  through media spin.

So what if Trump does’nt  build  his Maginot Line against the Mexican Wetbacks  and  US Corporations decline his invitation to repatriate their operations and  set up business in areas of high unemployment in the Rust Belt ? What if Brexit delivers neither greater sovereignty, nor tighter immigration controls,  but accelerates the decline in  productivity and investment in British industry?   Well then of course the conspiracy theorists are waiting in the wings  ready to denounce  the political class  for once again  thwarting  the Will of the People.The system is rigged, innit?  Heads they win, tails we lose.

We have  to recognise that politics is no longer business as usual, is no longer about  a rational choice  between competing interests or elites,   but draws on diffuse structures of collective sentiment, of hope and despair,  anger and resentment,  that are not amenable  to the calculations and trade offs  we have come to accept as  the only form of reason that counts. In those circumstances it seems as if demagoguery has the upper hand against any more grounded  process of democratic deliberation. The Political Unconscious and the return of its repressed rules OK. Trump with his combination  of  punitive finger  wagging moralism,   narcissistic posturing  and   adolescent sturm und drang    perfectly encapsulates  the ‘other scene’ of the American Dream.  But  authoritarian populism  only gains ground  because a vaccum has been created by the atrophy  of  more robust  and embedded  agencies    of democratic deliberation  whether in the labourhood or neighbourhood,  as a con sequence of  neo-liberal policies over the last decade.

Momentum was an attempt at renewal, and succeeded for a time in mobilising Generation Rent-  students and budding young professionals whose expectations of a decent, secure job and housing have been dashed- but it  ran foul of the   sectarian Left whose motto might well  be ‘in order to save the party ( from the reformists), we have to destroy it’. In many ways the  MO of the Trotskyite groupuscules is a parody of the deviousness and  instrumentalism  of  the mainstream parties,  mirroring in a suitably extreme form the  behind- the- scene manipulations  which are a substitute for  internal democracy even as they claim  to speak in its name. The only defence against this cancer in Labour’s  body politic is to develop organisational forms and practices  in which this kind of sectarianism is an irrelevance. And by no coincidence  these popular democratic forms and practices are precisely what is emerging within the gig economy  as a defence against the precarious conditions of existence to which increasing numbers of people, working class and middle class, black and white, gay and straight, now find themselves subjected. In the process some traditional forms of action are being re-invented, as in the recent Uber strikes, alongside new ones, and that, as we face forward into a New Year with an exponential growth in uncertainty, offers a realistic ground  for hope.

Two funerals and a  strange kind  of wedding

By a malign co-incidence  I recently had to attend two funerals on the same day at Golders Green Crematorium. In the morning I went to say goodbye to Jagdish Gundara,an old friend and comrade –in- arms in the struggle to build a more open and democratic educational and cultural strategy to challenge popular racism, especially amongst young people growing up in  working class communities. Over 200 hundred people crowded into the chapel  to pay their respects and to hear tributes to his life and work, friends, colleagues and family.  Perhaps the most moving eulogy was from a young nephew  who  related a number of very funny stories which his uncle had told him and which confirmed my belief that Jagdish  would could have made it as a stand up comedian up there with Omid  Djalili if he had wanted.
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I met Jagdish in the early 1980’S  shortly after I came to the Institute of Education to work on a research project about  young people, and the transition from school. The project was based in the  Department  of Sociology. The department  was not a very  easy introduction to  academic life, being a rather unhappy place, riven by personal and professional  animosities whose origin it was impossible for a novice to understand. Meeting with Jagdish was like leaving a dysfunctional Jewish family in which you never knew who was going to be this week,s favourite son, and entering a warm and welcoming  home from home  in which a sense of intellectual community, of belonging to shared endeavour was paramount.

The 1980’s  were a time of great change in education. The Thatcherite counter revolution  had singled out progressive child centred education,  critical pedagogy and the multicultural  curriculum   as major  targets. The Institute, which had been a  stronghold of critical educational theory and practice, found itself on the defensive. At the same time, there had  emerged on the  left, and partly as a response to the tightening of educational inequalities  under Thatcher, a form of anti-racism which was extremely doctrinaire and moralistic and, in its educational application tended to make many young white working class people feel that their culture was  being targeted  unfairly.  This approach, a Stalinist form of identity politics,  succeeded for a time in closing down  the spaces of dialogue and debate that were  needed  around issues of race both inside  and outside the school. We are reaping the whirlwind today.

Against this background  the  Centre  for Multi Cultural Education, under Jagdish’s leadership  was a  haven for  work that was concerned to develop new ways of thinking about cultural and institutional racism and how to combat it,  within a broad comparative  framework  informed by   humanist values.  What he came to define as inter-cultural education   avoided  falling back into easy liberal clichés about  the need to combat prejudice, encourage tolerance for diversity while at the same time avoiding the  kind of reductive  analysis in which it was always ‘racism what dunnit’.

Meeting and talking with Jagdish  inspired me to change the direction of my research. I tried to  develop an alternative, ethnographically grounded, approach  to working around issues of race with young people,  based on using photography and  art work in a form of peer to  peer pedagogy.The work was attacked from all sides   as opening up the pandoras box of popular racism. Jagdish, who was on the steering group for this project    was a tower of strength, a source of wise counsel and a steadying hand at moments when I felt  discouraged by the negative response and overwhelmed by  the difficulties and pressures of the task,

Much later,  when I  was going  through a period of extreme personal distress, amounting to a breakdown, he was again at my side, encouraging me not to give up   the fight against the inner demons of despair. In  the way he conducted his own life, and especially  in how he battled the afflictions  of his long illness,  Jagdish ‘s courage  was an inspiration  to many of us.And this courage was nopt confined to the personal sphere.  He was fearless in speaking truth to power, he despised time servers and careerists, especially those who affected to be on the side of the oppressed in order to further their professional  ambitions; he was passionate about  social and racial justice  and resolute in his determination to see it achieved.  He was a  steadfast friend and colleague, he was an entertaining raconteur, he loved  the  arts, good wine   and food. Indeed  it was because he wanted these  pleasure  of life to be available to all  and equitably shared,  that he struggled so strenuously against all those forces  in our society who would reserve  them for the wealthy and the powerful,  for those who go to the ‘right ‘ schools, have the ‘right’ kind of social, cultural or ethnic capital.

While he will always remain alive in the memory of the many students, colleagues and friends  who knew him,  worked with him, and whom he helped in numerous ways, it is important that we also keep his educational legacy alive, now especially, at a time when  those who feel threatened and  left behind by  globalisation are  turning to the local  consolations offered by right wing populism, nationalism and xenophobia.  Now more than ever,  when pessimism of the intellect rules OK, often dressed up as vacuous radicalism, we need his optimism of the will, his determination to remain curious and explore  new horizons of possibility even and especially  in the  face of set backs. Jagdish was very proud of a ceremonial sword he had been awarded  by the Indian government   in recognition of  his services to education, and which hung on his office wall. He was indeed a doughty warrior, fierce in the pursuit of what he believed in, but he was also gentle, generous, and kind. Yiddish has  a word for it. Jagdish was a real mensch.

In the afternoon I attended a very different kind funeral, that of my father.  Dad died  on November 16th at the age of 101, after a long period in which his incapacities, both mental and physical,  grew slowly worse, though  he bore the afflictions of very old age with fortitude and dignity and was able to remain in his own home until nearly the end.  There were only 12 mourners at the funeral, most of his friends, and my mother,  having pre-deceased him by many years..

My dad was  adamant that he did not want a service  to  mark his passing, so, in accordance with his expressed wishes, we arranged something very minimal  However we thought that  some structure and context should be given to this sad occasion for those who attended.

In the last few months of his life I spent a lot of time talking with my dad about his life, as we worked through his memoir, which is going to be published shortly online by History Workshop Journal. One of the stories he told me, relates directly to the two pieces of music we chose, the Iona  Boat Song  and Sea Sorrow,  both  sung by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir.  The choir meant a lot to him, as indeed did his boat, the Kyle of Lochalsh which, despite its name,  e kept on the Thames where  he and my mum spent many happy times and made new friends.

This is the story about the Glasgow Orpheus as my dad  wrote it  in his memoir. The narrative characteristically shifts from the first to the third person and back again:

‘ I was about 8 years old and in Miss Whitton’ s Class, a lovely fair haired gentle lady, with a soft voice and similar heart for whom the children would veritably lay down their lives. It was a music lesson on a tonic-so-fa instruction book. ” I have two tickets for an Orpheus Choir concert for a boy and a girl who will read a whole line of the music without a mistake “.Benzion is up and does. She waits for a girl. Benzion is in panic. He’s not going with a girl. ” George..I whisper to my pal,” please try”… I’m not sure. ” ” Don’t worry ” ‘

I  whisper. ” I will whisper it if you can’t do it. You must try ”         The clever little girl opposite is shy and stays silent. The choice is handed to the boys. ” George “, I nudge him. ” I am not going with a girl; try it.”               ” I’m not sure “. The tension is unbearable. George gets up. Success. Comes the night, George and Benzion are scrubbed clean for this adventure and we meet our teacher outside St.Andrew’s Hall, are given a bag of sweets and in we go. We were overwhelmed; the choristers were in grey academic gowns, the singing was heavenly and to crown it all one of the choristers fainted.

65 years later, Ben is listening to a radio recording of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, now defunct and is almost in tears.The concert was a seminal experience and began my passion for classical music so that for many years I attended the concerts at the same hall on Saturday mornings.’

Before we listened  to the second track from the Glasgow Orpheus   we shared  two minutes of silent reflection about  my father’s life  and what he meant to us. In the Jewish cultural tradition, to which my father felt he belonged, although he was in no way religious and had no time for Zionism, in the Jewish tradition,  there is a special space and time for this kind of reflection as part of the process of mourning; it  goes by the name of Kaddish. In a very fine book about this practice, which goes into its religious roots as well as its contemporary philosophical and cultural resonance Leon Wieseltier gives  a commentary  on its existential context which I think  provides a useful guide as to what was entailed as we each gathered our recollections of what my dad’s life and its passing meant. Here is  a short passage  from the book :

‘There are circumstances that must shatter you; and if you are not shattered, then you have not understood your circumstances. In such circumstances, it is a failure for your heart not to break. And it is pointless to put up a fight, for a fight will blind you to the opportunity that has been presented by your misfortune. Do you wish to persevere pridefully in the old life? Of course you do: the old life was a good life. But it is no longer available to you. It has been carried away, irreversibly. So there is only one thing to be done. Transformation must be met with transformation. Where there was the old life, let there be the new life. Do not persevere. Dignify the shock. Sink, so as to rise.’

Two very different lives  and times: Jagdish  a member of the Sikh community in London  from the 1960’s  onwards who  became a leading spokesman for  multicultural education, not only in Britain but around the world ;  my dad grew up in the Jewish community of the Gorbals  after the Ist  world war  and was  active, even as a young boy, in  the Independent Labour Party,  before  he went off to medical school, and a successful professional career as   an ENT surgeon in London.  Very different beginnings, but  the one connecting threat was the way their lives had been shaped by issues of race and class, and turned them into life-long socialists.  Jagdish had experienced at first hand the subtler forms of ‘Anglo-Saxon Attitude’  to be found amongst the educated English middle class.  My dad experienced the cruder forms of popular anti-semitism, growing up in the slums of Glasgow where battles between Catholic and Jewish razor gangs were not uncommon. For my dad’s generation the Spanish Civil War was the touchstone    of radical political sympathies, you were either for or against Fascism; in the cultural wars  around race and class which developed in the 1980’s, the lines drawn by identity politics  were less clear cut, and there was little love lost  between anti-racists and multiculturalists, even though they were all supposedly on the same side.

Life histories are always incommensurable, the singularities of  experience defy  easy  comparison let alone  equivalence. We think we know our parents, friends, lovers   or colleagues by virtue of the intimacies we share with them, but there is nothing like a funeral to make us realise as we listen to other’s tributes  that we are  only ever aware of one facet of  their lives.Nevertheless  my attempt to  marry  up these two  particular lives, brought together in their  ending  so arbitrarily in the same time and place,   was  perhaps  part of a wider quest  for  principle of political hope in difficult times. Certainly  both legacies belong to an enduring   narrative of struggle  for a better life, which however compromised   or deflected, survives.

That does not mean there is any easy reconciliation between the legacies  of different  generations, for despite some family resemblances, significant differences remain.  The  forced co-habitation of incompatible  visions of the world  in the name of  ‘tradition’ whether of  family, or nation    is  a worst case scenario. This theme is brilliantly explored in Tony Kushner’s new play  The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. Taking more than the idea for its title from George Bernard Shaw’s treatise, it deploys Shavian wit in deconstructing  the myths of both labourism and identity politics as these play out in an oedipal family  drama.  The father, a second generation Italian immigrant, grew up in a political culture where radical  ideas, whether of anarchism or communism  were part of everyday life. His finest moment was the organisation of a strike of longshoremen which won them permanent contracts at decent wages. He is however haunted by the fact, which is disclosed l in the play’s denouement, that the strike settlement resulted in  feather bedding for the older workers who led it, but redundancy for the younger workers.  The father represents an ancient regime of labour militancy  and cuts a  somewhat pathetically  patriarchal figure, his  pontifications  belied by his emotional vulnerability.  He is planning to sell the family home, a Brooklyn Brownstone now worth a million bucks, so that his children will have a financial inheritance, even if they  have rejected his political legacy. But this move is only the precursor to his decision to commit suicide  because he feels  that everything he has struggled for  and made his life meaningful, has come to an end. Meanwhile his son and daughter, who are both gay, and heavily involved in sexual  politics, have to deal with their own ambivalence about their father, as  they struggle to  help him find a reason to live in a world that has moved on.  It sounds like the plot of a Tenessee Williams play, full of extravagant   rhetorical  gestures. But  in Tony Kushner’s hands  this dialogue between  two, equally lost, generations is incandescent with  rage  and disappointed hope,  which is,moreover, articulated  in the form of simultaneous conversations, rather like  a series of inter-linked  opera duets. At first  the ebb and flow of debate  is rather confusing to follow until you realise that threaded through  this elaborate counterpointl of angry voices is a single line of argument about   what one generation owes to another, and how much young and old need each other to intercede on their behalf in facing up to the counter-finality    of all their plans and dreams.

No more carrying coal to Newcastle ?  On the value of keeping on, keeping on

I recently visited Newcastle in connection with a new project about the impact of de-industrialisation on the  form and content of coming of age stories across three generations. The big contrast with East London, where the other leg of  the study will take place, is that Tyneside has remained  relatively ethnically homogeneous (and white),  gentrification is much more limited and spatially concentrated in a few pockets  whereas East London has always been an area of immigration, is both hyper-diverse  and increasingly gentrified. In Newcastle I met Amber, a  collective  of   film makers and photographers who have documented the decline of  industry and the transformation of working class culture over the past thirty years; they  are currently working with children and young people  connecting them to  the still living heritage of local working class communities,  albeit one  which is  no longer so readily transmitted by their parents.  Newcastle used to be a major port where coal from  the Yorkshire pits was shipped out  hence the famous phrase. But its meaning  is lost on a generation  for whom King Coal may once upon a time have been a  merry old soul but has nothing to do with  any conceivable future they would want to be part of. Their prides of place need to find new anchorages,they have to  engage with new processes of wealth creation  through their work, and in doing so they will indirectly, be following  their grandparents and parents example.
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In the work I have been doing since 1970 in East London, it has been much more difficult, if not impossible, to trace  the pattern of continuity  across the generations – one  reason why I am embarking on this new project. More recently the work Livingmaps has been doing, in particular our Citizens Atlas of London, is also an attempt  to create a space of representation which  enables participants  to make new connections between the past, present and future, both in terms of their own life trajectories, and that of the city itself.

This kind  of work, pursued as part of a long term commitment  to an area and its communities, is getting increasingly  difficult to sustain.  The knowledge economy is now very much part of the gig economy, social  research  is a hit and run affair, seeking  quick results and quick fix policy solutions.  The justification  for short termism is  that given the chaotic synchronicity of global capitalism  long term planning is now  impossible or irrelevant. Jobs for life and  life time estates, secure careers  and stable neighbourhoods are a thing of the past. But, it seems to me, that  even and especially where this is the case,  we need to stay around long enough to document the transformations. There is a value in keeping on keeping on.


I  was recently  asked to speak at an  event  in support of Jeremy Corbyn`s bid to retain his leadership of the Labour Party.  The request came from the son of one of my oldest friends, a young man who  has recently discovered politics, along with a great deal of self confidence  after an unusually difficult  and prolonged  period of sturm und drang.  I would normally have  agreed but when  faced with the prospect of being a cheerleader for Jezza I  suddenly balked. Like many I had paid my 20 quid and broken the habit of a lifetime in order to vote him in  a year ago. Up to that point I had always belonged to the Groucho Marxist tendency and never joined a club that would have me as a member.
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Yet like many I had been disappointed by his performance. It was not just his failure to carry the bulk of the Parliamentary Party with him- the  vicious counter attack from the rump of hard core  Blairites was only to be expected- but his modus operandi, redolent of the political subculture of left activism to  which he has belonged for over half a century, was maximally calculated to alienate the younger and less committed MPs  on whose  support he depended. The eponymous Momentum, set up to build on the  support which  his original campaign for the leadership had aroused,  has succeeded in bringing a whole new generation  into direct political engagement for the first time. So called Generation Rent, the students who have seen their expectations of a rewarding professional career,  home ownership and financial security disappear as they swell  the ranks of the ever growing precariat,   have been the backbone  of  the Corbynista movement. But there is no easy  reconciliation between the  sectarian organisational strategies of the Old Left, and the populist mobilisation formats developed by  urban social movements and campaigns; they can fuse into quite a toxic combination, a form of  authoritarian populism unless a concrete mediation is found.

The inability of Team Corbyn to find a modus vivendi with the different social and ideological  forces that support  his anti-austerity  programme has been compounded by a mixture of political inexperience and organisational incompetence.  More serious has been the failure to give that programme both a substantive policy focus and  a rhetorical coherence that would resonate  not only with  Generation Rent   but with  large sections of the  disorganised working class  who have deserted to UKIP and  voted Brexit. Momentum simply has not reached out to this vital sector of the electorate, concentrated in the de-industrialised heartlands where the progressive culture of manual labourism  has disintegrated and been replaced by a more or less racialised version of white ethnicity. To do so would require a sustained effort to transform ethnic into civic nationalism of the neighbourhood through concerted and socially embedded  forms of cultural and community action. In lieu of this, what Momentum can and does do is  to operate in the gig economy and stage pop-up cultural events and meetings, a style of politics that has an elective affinity with Generation Rent.

The event to which I was invited to contribute was a case in point. It was staged in a music pub frequented by students and hipsters from Corbyn’s  Islington  constituency. I  told the organisers that I  was not a Corbynista  and did not feel able to  contribute for the reasons I have just outlined. But I did agree to pitch up and if there was a spot and they felt what I had to say was appropriate to the occasion, then I would `perform`.

There were about twenty young people huddled around the brightly lit stage, most of them, it turned out,   the performers  and their friends. In between the acts, which comprised some  awful doggerel protest poetry and some quite good, but apolitical  songs, the MC bellowed slogans   into an imaginary megaphone and encouraged the audience to respond as noisily as possible  to simulate a mass rally and attract punters in from the street. My friend`s son got up and made a rather good speech, passionate yet considered, about how Corbyn`s agenda represented a principle of hope  and Momentum was the last chance to build a mass movement against the Tories austerity regime. The audience cheered and hooted their appreciation. Yet  I could not help but feel that these young people were clutching at straws, and that they deserved  better than what they were being offered by the Labour Party in its present state of crisis. But  what, after all, did I,or my generation of 68’èrs have to offer them except a glimpse of a  political transformation that had seemed possible once upon a time but  like all such  narratives  would now seem  little more than a fairy story for a generation who anyway were inclined to misrecognise us as the spoilt offspring of  hip capitalism, if not  the  Thatcherite counter revolution, with our secure jobs and pensions, our over valued houses  and our smug self  satisfied radicalism.

I had written a short poem with a commentary which I thought might raise some issues worth debating, but looking round the audience I sensed  that few, if any of them, would know what I was on about, or would   see the relevance of my historical analogy. Maybe I was  wrong in under-estimating the depth of their  understanding of the crisis of social democracy. In any case  their story has had a happy ending, at least as far as Momentum is concerned with the re-election of    Corbyn with an increased majority.  So perhaps my intervention was redundant. Who needs subtle dialectics, when crude thoughts  can win the day?   But for  what it is worth,  here is the text of the talk I would have delivered if the circumstances had seemed more propitious:

Are we that Poem?

The title of my  poem derives from   a debate that took place during the 1930’s between Walter Benjamin and Bertold Brecht, who were close friends but also sparring partners. The debate, between a philosopher and a poet who wrote prose, and a playwright and  polemicist who wrote  poetry,  was about the relation between two versions of Marxism, Hegelian and materialist, and about  the (non)relation between revolutionary theory and practice in the arts.
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These conversations took place   against the background of the rise of right wing nationalism and fascism in Europe.  Brecht  admired  Benjamin’s ability to do elegant  headstands on the high wire of cultural theory, but argued that subtle dialectics was not enough; he needed to get his feet more on the real ground of politics. Benjamin   admired  Brecht’s didactic ability to cut through the hype and waffle and get to the nitty gritty of things, putting into plain words   ideas that were on the tip of everyone’s tongue, Crude thoughts, at least in the Brechtian sense,  are ideas produced through collective deliberation, voiced in the vernacular of everyday speech,  not just salacious gossip or blue jokes told by a stand up comedian.  Today more than ever we need both – dialectics is the dance of the mind and on the Left we need politicians who can not  only think on their feet but join in the dance of collective deliberation and policy making.  And I am NOT thinking here of  Ed ‘twinkle toes’ Balls  whose dancing is as wrong footed  as his politics.

My poem is a deliberate plagiarism of Brecht’s famous poem ‘The Solution’, which was written in 1953 in the immediate aftermath of a popular uprising  against the Stalinisation of the GDR regime, and in particular a decision by the central committee of the Socialist Unity Party to lower wages and increase work quotas. The uprising was started by construction workers and lead to mass meetings, and factory occupations. It was bloodily suppressed by Soviet tanks,  arrests and purges and extra -judicial murders. It led to the first large-scale exodus of people from East to West Berlin, and thus contributed to the building of the Berlin Wall. Brecht’s poem satirises a so called socialist  government   that  erects walls around its own  people, ostensibly    to defend them against being corrupted by capitalism but in reality to  protect its own power. Unfortunately  there are still people today on the Left who think that socialism can be built by erecting  doctrinal walls to keep  the ideology pure and stop it being contaminated by democratic debate, whether inside or outside the party…..

The only other thing  you need to know about the poem is that a psycho-pomp is someone who guides the dead to the underworld.


(with due acknowledgement to Bert  Brecht)

After the so called uprising of June 23rd 

When  business and political leaders

had leaflets distributed

stating that the people

had forfeited their confidence

and could win it back only

by redoubled efforts

and another referendum

Would it not be easier in this case

for the government

to dissolve the people

and elect another?


After the  attempted  coup of June 28th

when members of the PLP

had leaflets distributed

stating that their leader

had forfeited their confidence

and could only win it back

by giving up the ghost

would it not be easier in this case

for the PLP

to dissolve the membership

and elect a committee of psycho-pomps

to lead the now non-existent party

To another underworld ?

August Blog; From London to Rio,the band plays on

Some reflections on  the Olympic  dream machine

‘As a microcosm of what we hope to achieve,  look at the Olympics and their Legacy….We have set ourselves the goal of ‘convergence’.  The idea is that kids growing up in East London should have the same life chances as anywhere else. There is no reason why the kids of East London should not benefit from, say, rugby, as much as the kids from Richmond. After two hours of hard physical exercise such as scrumming and tackling around the ankles, a 16 year old is less likely to want to get into a gang fight.’

Boris Johnson – 2020 Vision. The Greatest City on Earth: Ambitions for London  

The Olympic Games are unique  amongst mega sporting events, not just because of the scale of infrastructure investment and impact on host cities, not even because of the scope of media attention, which provides an unparalleled platform for the promotion of  carnival capitalism under the banner of national and civic ambition ;  rather  the Games  are invested with a peculiar prospect of hope for a  world in which the idealism of  youth as captured by sport  prevails over geo-political conflict and  a prolonged retrospect in which  their legacy – the material and social benefits  supposedly accruing to   their host communities- is  subject to  a combination of intensive monitoring and collective amnesia.

It has been  no surprise that the  media coverage in the run up to Rio  has served as a prompt for nostalgic reminiscence and smug self congratulation about  London 2012 on the part of those responsible for its  delivery. How much better we managed things than the Brazilians!   Yet its  worth pausing for a moment to consider how the so called ‘Legacy Games’ set about  constructing their own posterity. Ackroyd and Harvey’s ‘History Trees’ consists of a series of large installations planted to mark the entrances to the Olympic Park. Each tree has a brass ‘memory ring’ weighing half a ton placed in its crown, engraved on its interior face with words and phrases reflecting the area’s history. The official handout tells us that ‘over time, the tree branches and ring will slowly fuse together, becoming a living memory of the Olympic Park’(www.ackroydandharvey.com). Each year, the handout goes on, the two will momentarily align to commemorate a significant event during the games. Quite how this is to be achieved remains a mystery. The words on the rings are, of course, deliberately unreadable, except by someone bold enough to actually climb the tree. Anyone who does so will discover a series of enigmatic and evocative phrases with a variety of local resonances: It’s all about water – Cockles from Leigh – A cormorant, symbol of marsh, etc. Otherwise the story they have to tell is strictly for the birds. Eventually the rings will also be invisible, at least in summer, as they form each tree’s ‘hollow crown’.

An artwork that is designed to celebrate the living legacy the Olympics, inscribed with signifiers of a landscape which the construction of the Olympic site has largely effaced, will thus serve as an elaborate metaphor of occlusion and forgetfulness, in which cultural memory and local history are overgrown by the hand of nature and the march of time. Plato would have loved the idea of the arbitrary coincidence of two shadows, one permanently inscribed, the other ephemeral. Socrates would have grumbled about the expense to the public purse not to mention the inconvenience of having to hang around in the cold while Clio, in alliance with Mother Nature, gets her act together. Philosophically the project is a no-brainer and its aesthetic rationale – a kind of anti-ruinology – is at best a rather glib double take on Anselm Kiefer’s explorations of traumatic memoryscape: representing the unrepresentable by rendering it into an undecipherable code. Is this what it means  to live the Olympic Dream, to  remain permanently poised   between  a  utopian  project, demanding the impossible and the repression of hopes and desires for a better world that it evokes.

The installation can thus be read as a meta-statement about the central legacy issue. How is it possible to create a ‘Post Olympics’, which is neither a simple material trace of a historical event (the 2012 Games), a sentimental retrieve of a liminal moment of national triumphalism (as celebrated in the Ceremonies and Team UK’s crock of golds), nor a re-iteration of an original compact with the host city struck in the heat of the bid, but which has long since lost any rhetorical purchase it once had on its citizens?  It is a characteristic of any Post Olympic city that it remains haunted by extravagant promises of regeneration, and by the disappointment that inevitably comes with the discovery that it is indeed impossible to live the dream. The form of this haunting is unique to each Olympiad, and bears on the specifics of the deal struck with local communities and their political representatives. In the case of 2012 the legacy promise to the people of East London has come to be known as the ‘convergence agenda’ :  the life chances of working class children growing up in Newham and other host boroughs  was to be the same as their middle class peers in more traditionally affluent parts of town. Or as Boris Johnson, the then mayor of London put it, in his inimitable stle, the natural tendency of  kids in  East London to riot will be curbed by the  fact that they will derive as much benefit from hard  rugby practice as their peers attending private schools  in Richmond. Lol.

The idea that in a society where structural inequalities are intensifying, partly as a direct  result of government policies, the Olympic legacy could create a bubble of prosperity in which this trend is locally  reversed is   pure magical thinking, but it takes our leading Brexiteer to give it a properly farcical twist as an old Etonian injunction  to the lower orders to ‘play up, play up and play the Game’. In the context of  the  EU referendum debate, we have indeed seen the London 2012 dream re-stated  by the Leave campaign who used it to argue  that Britain could put on a successful show as a  stand alone nation,  open to the world, and united in the spirit of  enterprise that had once upon a time ( i.e. before our accession to the EU)  made us  great. Post-Imperial nostalgia, only evoked ironically and  in  passing  during the actual 2012 ceremonies,  thus made a come back bid in a retrospective claim that  the Games prefigured  a collective  desire to re-invent the island story. But what if the economic outcome of Britain’s leaving the EU were to finally dash the hopes of those who believed that the legacy of the Games would bring about  an economic  transformation of East London  for the immediate benefit of its existing communities?

Jules Boykoff, one of the most sophisticated opponents of Olympic-led  urban regeneration  recently compared Rio 2016 with London 2012,  in terms of its  displacement effect on  working-class  housing and jobs and accelerated gentrification. Certainly since 2012 land values and house prices around Stratford have gone through the roof. The London Legacy Development Corporation have produced a local plan  without teeth and are seemingly powerless to prevent market forces turning Hackney Wick from a boho refuge for generation rent into a des res for  affluent creatives.  In terms of sustainable local jobs, these are mostly concentrated in the low wage retail sector in Westfield, which would have been built anyway while  gold plated developments like the International Business Quarter and ‘Olympicopolis’ ( the new international cultural hub in Olympic Park) will draw professional workers and residents from the global labour market.

So there is plenty of evidence to back up the position of the Olymophobes- those from whom the Games always and already can do no right. However these  critiques fail to take fully into account the singular fact that the greatest support for sport, and indeed for the Sporting Spectacle generated by  mega-events, is   often found amongst  the most deprived   and marginalised sections  of the host communities  precisely  because it represents a principle of hope not otherwise available in their everyday lives.  It may, of course, turn out to be a false hope and it is for  that very  reason that  urban social  movements  which focus on the negative regeneration impacts can take root  where and whenever  popular frustration, disillusion  and disappointment  with the Olympic project  wells up.

Here the big difference in the response of the people of East London to the Olympics, compared to that of the favelistas of Rio, comes from the fact that the scale of immediate  displacement was far less  and that however cynical local people  may have been about the legacy promises, the now manifest failure to deliver on them  has not have such a widespread or catastrophic effect.  In London protest in the run up to the Games was confined to a relatively small number of those whose lives and livelihoods were directly impacted. These included, for example, owners of small enterprises demolished to make way for the site, taxi drivers excluded from the  Olympics lanes, the displaced residents from the Clays Lane housing estate, and residents from the threatened Carpenters housing estate. In addition, there was a dissenting intelligentsia of artists, writers and environmentalists,  concentrated in nearby Hackney Wick, on the edges of the Olympic Park.

In Rio, in contrast, the regeneration programme directly affects the whole favela population of the city, a massive body of second class citizens, at a time when popular distrust of the country’s corrupt political eilte has led to mass demonstrations and the deposition of the President. The report of the Popular Committee of Rio, an alliance of local academics and activists,  does not fall into the Olympophobic trap. Its opposition is not to the inspirational principles of the Games and its Legacy Ideal, but to its dystopian practical outcome, the comprehensive failure of Brazil’s political class, and the Rio authorities in particular, to live up to  egalitarian and internationalist principles  and to carry them over from the sporting  arena to the city itself.  As well as providing a devastating critique of the delivery authorities and  a close documentation of the disastrous consequences  of their  policies  for Rio’s urban poor, the  dossier also outlines a manifesto which seeks to use the Olympics as a platform for alternative planning initiatives  based on democratic deliberation, transparency and the people’s needs.

Unlike London 2012, the governance and delivery of the Rio Games have been  mired in overt concealment and corruption. Rio’s bid  was used by the government, then led by President Lula,  as a political instrument to  implement an economic policy  which  aimed to combine payoffs to the business elite  with  dividends for the poor. In  delivering this aim, the Worker’s Party quickly became enmeshed in  the culture of bribery and kickbacks  which is endemic to the way politics as well as business is done in Brazil.  While  his party  remained in hock to the big corporations and construction companies, for whom the advent of  the mega events was an unexpected windfall, Lula  and the mayor of Rio  launched a ‘war against poverty’ that quickly turned into a war against the poor.

Urban violence has been a serious problem in Brazil for the last half-century, and Rio de Janeiro has been no exception. Homicides are the number one cause of death for 15-44-year-olds and Rio has the highest homicide rate in Brazil. Research carried out in the favelas by the London School of Economics and UNESCO concluded that security is a key issue and plays a major role in the way people who live in the favelas are socialised. There exist complex relationships between the residents of the favelas, the police and the drug traffickers. The researchers found that the drug trade has  been provider, legislator and organizer of everyday life in favelas over decades, offering a parallel system of governance, and rules for conduct as well as a possible career choice for many. In contrast the police, as the main representative of the State in the favelas, are often seen by those living there as persecutory and aggressive, making no differentiation between the everyday inhabitants of the favelas and the drug dealers and other criminals.

In 2009 the Brazilian government made a public announcement on television and radio,  prompted by the award of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016  Games, that they would be instigating a new kind of police force, adopting new methods to combat social problems and occupy territories dominated by criminal organizations i.e. the favelas. They set up Police Pacification Units, whose purpose, is: i) to take back state control over communities currently under strong influence of ostensibly armed criminals; ii) give back to the local population peace and public safety, conditions necessary for the integral exercise and development of citizenship; iii) contribute to breaking with the logic of “war” that currently exists in Rio de Janeiro. There are currently 37 Police Pacification Units operating in Rio, with 9,073 Military Police in 252 favelas and in the pacification process the local government has tried to contribute to the consolidation of the peace process and the promotion of local citizenship in pacified territories through the promotion of urban, social and economic development and by attempting to integrate these areas into the city as a whole.  That is the rhetoric of ‘regeneration’.  The reality is that every single one of the favelas that have come under ‘pacification’ is on or around one of the four venue zones for the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which raises the question of who the pacification process is really meant to benefit – those who live in the favelas or the people living in areas of the venue zones outside the favelas? In a word the affluent middle and upper class. This is  gentrification not by stealth, or by the simple application of market forces, but  as a direct action of class war and social cleansing rationalised as instrument of ‘slash and burn’ urban planning.

Rio was a good choice for the Olympics. It is  one of the first places where carnival capitalism took off, turning a festival based on a popular culture of resistance  to European colonialism into a multi -million dollar tourist enterprise.  The  Rio Opening ceremony celebrated the ‘Green Games’, brilliantly  kitschifying  its ecological message while reneging on the bid promise to end the pollution of Guanabara  Bay  by building a new sewage system. Shit continues to fly in formation. So forget about  re-arranging the deckchairs on Botafogo beach, the titanic message of this Olympics is to carry on dancing while the ship of state goes down, and  never mind the rest of the planet.

The Olympics  offer us the  tragic-comic spectacle of a huge human enterprise  which  destroys itself as it becomes mired in  sordid political machinations  and  bureaucratic mechanisms of  public unaccountability, not to mention doping scandals.  It is  a dream machine that becomes a nightmare for those populations in whose name, and for whose benefit the whole exercise is conducted. Increasingly the citizens of potential  host cities are saying no to bidding – the Games are not worth the candle  they light for carnival capitalism.

The Olympics also suffers  from a generic disjuncture between pre and post Games time, the first flooded with high anxiety and anticipation, the second by an interminable fading of horizons of possibility  – will the 2012 Games be finally over in 2020, or 2050, or whenever some  legacy body  decides to call a halt to the evaluation of its ‘catalytic effects’? If Olympic Cities are imagined looking forwards to a more or less Utopian future in which the hopeful vision of the bid will have materialized on the ground,  they are remembered looking  back in regret at what was a once-upon-a-time ideal. This split temporality also has its spatial correlate  in the corporate imagineering  that conjures up an area of urban  dereliction in desperate need of large-scale regeneration in order to  project onto it a futuristic scenario of  magical  transformation .

Let’s end on a more optimistic, indeed Utopian note. Lets play the Olympic Game and imagine an altogether different kind of world event. The IOC would be disbanded and the administration of the Games taken over by UNESCO, giving that  organization a much needed  direction and financial boost.  A permanent venue would be built in Greece  on the ruined remains of the 2004 venues, while smaller demountable venues would be  constructed   in geo-political hotspots : the West Bank, Aleppo, Sudan, etc so that the  notion of truce  central to Olympic mythography  could at last be  substantiated.  A separate event in which all athletes are not only allowed but required to take performance enhancing drugs would be arranged  under the sponsorship of Macdonald’s and Coca Cola. The Para-Olympics would have their own separate organization – the true successor to the IOC.   Now that’s a dream machine we might all climb aboard….

Further reading

Jules Boykoff Th Power games : A political history of the Olympics  verso 2016

Phil Cohen  On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics Lawrence and Wishart 2013

Phil Cohen and Paul Watt (eds)  London 2012 and the Post Olympic City: a hollow legacy?  Palgrave Macmillan (2016 in press)

Hilary Powell and Isaac Marrero-Guillamón  The Art of Dissent:adventures in London’s Olympic State    (2012)

Gavin Poynter and Valerie Viehoff (eds) The London Olympics and Urban Development Routledge 2016



Mad Dogs and Englishmen : The EU referendum and its Other Scene

1.Mad Dogs  

Like most of you, I have been following the public debate about the EU referendum  with   horrified fascination  and growing anxiety. Listening to the claims and counter-claims of the Remainders and Brexiteers reminded me of that  famous opening verse of Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ written in the immediate aftermath of the First World War:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

What is clearly  falling apart is the managed consensus of  the Westminster political class, with its electoral pre-occupation  of capturing the ideological  centre ground. As for the ceremony of innocence, the widespread disenchantment  with mainstream party politics has opened up a space for  more  authentic and expressive  forms  of civic engagement,  to reclaim authentic principles of hope  in danger of being drowned out by the media spin machine. Yet the more populist response has been from  the Right  not Left field.  What passionate intensity there has been, is largely from the leading Tory Brexiteers, while Corbyn’s lack of conviction in backing Remain   is all too palpable.

We are familiar with   a bi-polar political culture with its rapid moods swings  from manic denial of painful or  unpalatable  realities, to the depressive recognition that no –one has the political will or capacity to do anything to change them for the better. On the Left we are used to  hollow triumphalism being  capped by rampant defeatism.  But in the case of the referendum debate, ever more inflated prophecies of doom (from economic meltdown  to a third world war)    have not been trumped  by visions of New Dawn. The   choice has simply been between two different scenarios of how things might get a whole lot worse, if we make the wrong choice. On one side the spirit of free enterprise  is stifled by Brussels  bureaucracy, while  our public services  are swamped  by hordes of EU immigrants who  take our jobs, our housing  and even our exams. On the other side, the  flight of capital, collapse of investment, and consequent loss of jobs is  accompanied by a fiscal crisis  which precipitates another recession.

There has been much talk of ‘project fear’, but less attention paid to the way existing  idioms of moral panic associated with  perceived threats to  public order ( terrorists, sexual predators, criminal gangs, and carriers of ‘alien’ ideas and cultures) have been mobilised as  tokens of  political stakes around issues of sovereignty and border control. Both sides have traded in the false currencies of in/security, offering  impossible protective measures that only serve to fuel  public alarm and despondency.

We are dealing here with a form of hysteria which has not only seized hold of the political class, but which the two campaigns are seeking to   inject into civil society.  It is worth remembering   that hysteria is a form of dissimulation. The hysterical symptom   masks the trauma of a reality  whose trace it bears like scar, and which also constitutes  a blind spot, something that cannot be put into words.  In this context, conflicts internal  to the body politic are first ’somatised’ –that is they are experienced as organic  or integral to its mode of functioning- and then disavowed, by being projected onto an external   body, in this case the EU, where they can be dealt with through purely symbolic action : voting to stay in or leave. So for example, the widening  inequalities in British  society, the enormous disparities in wealth, power  and opportunity ,  not only in term of class formation but in  their regional distribution,  are  taken for granted as an inherent part of an unchangeable  political and economic landscape,  but, at the same time,  they are also held to originate from  outside as a result of globalisation, and to be either mitigated or reinforced by membership of the EU.

Hysteria, as a structure of mobilised  political feeling, involves a strategy of displacement, a play of substitutions, involving the classical  mechanisms of denial, projection and splitting. The two campaigns  faithfully  mirror one another in their style  of vituperation  as in the mechanisms of scapegoating that  they  authorise.  At the same time  we must not forget that  hysteria is a defence against a trauma of the real. In this context the real is the fact that  our culture, history and political economy is inextricably bound up with that  of Europe and its key institutions, including the EU itself  That relation can  best be described in   terms of the famous Uncle Remus story about  the’tar baby’. You will recall that, Br’er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and dresses it with some clothes. When Br’er Rabbit comes along he addresses the tar baby amiably, but receives no response. Br’er Rabbit becomes enraged  by what he perceives as the Tar-Baby’s bad manners, punches it, and in doing so becomes stuck. The more Br’er Rabbit punches and kicks the tar “baby”, the worse he gets stuck.

This first part of the story pretty accurately describes how the British political class, of whatever ideological persuasion, perceives their dealings with  the Eurocrats. Brussels  commitment to ‘ever greater political union’ and   indifference to  this country’s ‘special needs’ has forced us  to get ever more mired in the  workings of the organisation, and the more we struggle to get free, the more trapped we become.

However in the second half of the story it turns out that Brer Rabbit has a trick up his sleeve and succeeds in turning the tables on Brer Fox.  He pleads  “Do anything you want with me — roast me, hang me, skin me, drown me — but please, Br’er Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,” prompting the gloating  Br’er Fox to do exactly that. As thickets are home from home to rabbits,  the resourceful Br’er Rabbit escapes.

For  both camps the referendum is  their  briar patch, where they are on home ground and can escape the  tar baby’s clutches, either  by outfoxing    the Eurocrats  who wants to skin us alive, by insisting that our burrows ( or bolt holes) are none of their business  or by joining forces with them  to ensure that rabbits are a protected species.

The point of the analogy is to suggest that  the referendum debate, for all  its obsession with facts, has another, more unconscious dimension,  not a  deliberately hidden  agenda, but  what Freud called ‘its other scene’. For all that both sides claim that the issue is a matter of rational calculation  couched in the language of relative costs and benefits, the war of statistics has proved to be central to the politics of  what we might call hysterical materialism : the belief that the mere assertion of material facts   has a performative effect and  will bring about the desired state of affairs.

Two very different concepts of the future are at stake here. The first is the one we are familiar with, the extrapolation of present trends to predict  what society will be like if they continue. This form of futurology relies on setting up a number of different scenarios and then working out  how  various kinds of agency are likely to behave. It is usually a precautionary analysis designed to minimise or mitigate risk  and underpins the proverbial conservatism  of common sense : rather the devil you know than the devil you don’t, look before you leap etc etc..  The second perspective on the future sees it not as an extension of the present, but as a break with it  and conducts a thought experiment to map out an emergent horizon of possibilities under different  sets of circumstance.  It is more like an adventure story, than a cautionary tale,  focussing of what is in process of becoming rather than what is, what might be gained rather than lost.

In principle the Remainders should favour the first  approach and the Brexiteers the second, but the situation is complicated by a profound shift in what we might call the chrono-topography  of  contemporary political discourse, the way in which past, present and future is constructed  and narrated as a site of political action.  The model  most of us grew up with  might be called  proto-modernist and is about the constant process of modernisation linked to advances in science and technology and a growth in public enlightenment through mass education. Within this frame, the past is what is left behind by the present as it progresses into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed and is retrieved  by the intervention of some  special device or place of commemoration, where it appears as teleological principle of continuity  – the plan or law or  higher purpose which governs the unfolding of processes in  historical time.

Until  the late 20th century  proto-modernism  was closely entailed in the notion of historical progress as an incremental step by step change for the betterment of the human condition  (greater tolerance, less everyday violence, longer life spans etc). But increasingly progress has come to mean the simple intensification or acceleration of present trends into the future. Indeed there is a whole discourse of ‘futurology’ built on this premise.

The second chrono-topography might be called retro-modernist, in the sense that it regards modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved but as something that has never quite happened, is basically unachievable and can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit. Here the present is experienced and narrated as a discontinuous series of discrete moments, belonging to an often chaotic synchronicity, split off from a past which never fades but continues to be re-presented and recycled, and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable.  History is now de-composed into a series of   unconnected fragments, mashed up by an unreliable narrator into a more or less spectacular collage of fragments.

At one level, this model involves a profound de-historicising of experience, a radical disconnect between past, present and future; it amortises intellectual, cultural and social capital, which decreases in value over time, and, if unchecked hollows out the cognitive and emotional resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration. Nevertheless it also opens up a space for the social imaginary, for the projection of, usually dystopian, futures, and sponsors various kinds of retro-chic culture.

The Remainders are by instinct and principle proto-modernist, whereas the Brexeteers are more sanguine, more sceptical about ‘progress,’   more likely to mourn the world they have lost through globalisation and to be more apprehensive about future outcomes of present trends. This does not make them full fledged retro-modernists however, since the break with the present they want to engineer  is in order to re- establish a principle of continuity with the past. But it does put them in a strong position to draw support from the  dystopian strain in popular culture  which  has injected a pervasive retro-modernism into working class views of the world. In contrast a dissident intelligentsia, largely concentrated in the universities and creative industries,    have developed a positive form of retro-modernism, whether as a rhetorical or aesthetic device,  to dissociate themselves from what they regard as bourgeois and reactionary  modes of proto-modernist thought. As such they   have an elective affinity with  the Remainders even if they do not share their one dimensional view of progress, nor subscribe to  the new Whig interpretation of British history which sees membership of the EU  as the only way to keep the union intact and the increasingly centrifugal forces of the national-popular at bay.


Political hysteria is a manic defence mechanism which, in its alarmist  rhetoric,  simulates the presence of uncontrollable  forces in the body politic in order to dissimulate the capacity to  tame or control them. There is a method in its madness. In the referendum debate, as Anthony Barnett’s timely dissection of its provenance  has   brilliantly demonstrated, this madness  is centred on national identity politics  and its method consists in reconfiguring the status of the English as an imagined community, both  in  relation to what is still widely regarded from an Anglo-islish perspective  as ‘the Celtic Fringe’  ( viz,Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), and  to Europe and the wider world.

The referendum debate has been an  exercise in collective navel gazing. The umbilical chord which hitherto attached large sections of the population, across class and partly political divides, to a shared myth of national origins and destiny, in which the English  inhabitants of this small and providential offshore  island  had a birthright in freedom and popular sovereignty which also entitled them to exercise hegemony over the rest of the country and its far flung dominions overseas, that trope has now largely shed its narcissistic structuring, and become  merely  a functionless and shrivelled reminder of our  severance  from the original phantasm of a  nurturing womb from which  a unitary identity is produced. That fact does not stop large number of people wanting to re-create an Englishness in its image, but it also points to a form of the national-popular that is more about  constructing new platforms of civic engagement that are more directly democratic as well as more inclusive  in  their conception of sovereignty. There is a widespread longing to discover and celebrate a ‘deep England’ which predates the age of Industry and Empire, which is not implicated in the appropriation of Arcadian pastoral by anglo-saxon racism, and which now might offer an ecological template  for a post-industrial and post- imperial sense of belonging in the world.    This confusing mix of  resurgent and emergent forms of   English nationalism, pointing in quite different political directions is the central mis-en- scene of the referendum debate, and will remain critical  whatever the outcome  on June 23.

To understand what is at stake here, another poem, by a near contemporary of Yeats  came to  mind. In ‘ Dover Beach’ Mathew Arnold maps out the contours  of a melancholic sensibility to loss etched into the English land and sea scape, a sensibility which has continued to echo in the current debate around sovereignty.

.. the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast,out in the tranquil bay

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.


The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.


Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, norr light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

This poem with its beautiful and tremulous  cadences  was  picked up not only in the music of Elgar, Butterworth, Ireland and Vaughan Williams,   but reprised in  Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, and in more recent work by George Benjamin and Thomas Ades;  it leads us on a journey whose  features take on a new and powerful set of connotations in  the structures of sentiment and belief mobilised around the referendum.  Dover may stand for some as a natural symbol of a now vanished fortress of anglo-ilish independence  from continental Europe but the town now hosts a rich mix of migrants from the EU, as well as internal refugees from the collapse of  the welfare state. The note of sadness is no longer external, it has become an intrinsic feature of post imperial melancholia, the long withdrawing roar of English football crowds as the national team fades once again into the sporting twilight, a feeling whose bitterness only partly assuaged by sardonic self referential humour as in the Noel Coward song. Under these circumstances,the world which  seems to lie before us, like the  land  of our dreams, whether these be of socialism in one country, or some broader vision of international solidarity, promises neither deliverance  from pain, nor the certainty of success, and so we find ourselves once more on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, passive witnesses to the spectacle of two ignorant armies clashing nightly on TV.

The choice we seem to be offered  is  between a Greater England, with its own parliament and liberated from the toils of belonging to a foreign neo-liberal superstate ( the progressive Brexeteer position)   and a Little Britain, still anglo-ilish, clinging on to a disintegrating Union  but  leading the campaign  for the democratic reform  of EU institutions ( the progressive Remainder position articulated most clearly by Varoufakis). Put this way the issue is truly undecidable. We would like both please, and worry that we may end up with neither, whichever way the vote goes. Cameron’s style of corporate Euro-populism insists we can have the best of both worlds- enjoy the advantages of EU membership ( subsidiarity) without the disadvantages ( increased migration of workers into the low wage,low skill sectors of the economy). The Brexeteers are actually more realistic, in arguing that there are strings with everything.

The brutal binarism of the referendum has become a double bind, in which  we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t, because any proposition about a specific policy ( for example  in shore fishing  quotas) is instantly met by some higher order principle which countermands it. In this example if we leave the EU and de-regulate fishing by  home boats  in our territorial waters, the advantage to our local fishing industry is countermanded by the threat of overfishing. If alternatively we stick with the strict EU rules on ecological grounds then  the local fishing industry suffers. What is good for the fish is just not good for the fisherman, and vice versa because foreign competition from Russian, Japanese and other EU trawlers is so intense and largely beyond governmental control.

To think that a remain vote will mean ‘business as usual’ either in political or economic terms is as illusory as to think that an exit vote means that in one bound Anglo-Britain will be free to rediscover its spirit of national enterprise along with its sovereignty. But where is the perspective from the Left which would offer  an alternative way forward?

The paralysis of  the Left  is partly due to the profound  Euro-scepticism of many of its  party members ( and not only its leader), partly due to fear of even further alienating its  residual white working class support which is haemorrhaging to UKIP in England, and has already deserted to the SNP in Scotland, and partly down to the fact that  it is heir  to an introverted    home grown culture of popular radicalism; this  goes back as far as  anglo-saxon protests against the ‘Norman Yoke’, and runs like a scarlet thread through labour history from  suspicion of ‘foreign’ ideas  like Anarchism and Marxism, amongst the Fabians, to the celebration of  ‘ancient liberties’ of the commons associated with the customary rights of the free born Englishman  by  RH Tawney and the Guild Socialists and more recently by E.P.Thompson, Raphael Samuels  and from  a less introspective standpoint, Peter Linebaugh.  The insularities of the English  labour movement  die hard and have proved  quite compatible with a loose rhetoric of internationalism. The fact that members of the BAME communities, heavily unionised in the public sector, and also concentrated in SME businesses,   have largely resisted the temptation to draw the line under their own feet and vote Brexit is encouraging, and may yet decide the outcome, given that immigration has become the central issue.

Nevertheless political hysteria around issues of security, which are inextricably material and symbolic, and variously    fuelled by post imperial melancholy or new identity politics is unlikely to go away, any more than the conditions of chronic precarity  experienced by increasingly  large sections of the population, young and old, native born English and EU arrivants,  middle class students and working class NEETS, single parents and large families. There is already a demographic majority against austerity politics and the faltering hegemony of neo-liberalism. In or out of the EU the work the Left has to do is to help build a coalition of these forces for a progressive, democratic politics around  the need for and right to affordable housing, decent well paid jobs, long term investment,  popular planning and widening  access to  free educational and cultural resources.  The emergence of new forms of workplace, community and environmental activism are creating platforms of civic engagement in which intellectuals and artists can break out of their  individual creative bubbles and work alongside  ordinary people whose aspirations for a better life are both more urgent, more frustrated and perhaps more generous.   The referendum debate in all its hysterical  banality is part of the symptomatic crisis of a dying political culture. A new one has yet to be born, but at least the debate may have hastened  the  transition.


Some people have interpreted this text  as a plea to abstain. In fact I am voting to remain as the least worse option. While I am happy to say a plague on both your houses to the Cameron/Osborne and Johnson/Duncan-Smith camps, not to mention Farage &Co,   the progressive case for ‎both Remain and Leave merits a decision. On balance I think the Varoufakis argument is stronger, even though the development of a European wide movement for the democratic reform of the EU and it’s adoption of anti austerity policies seems remote, to say the least. However  I did campaign for a Socialist Europe way back in 1975 at a a time when the entire labour movement and Left was  against joining . So despite all the odds  I am sticking to that decision.


 References/Further reading

Anthony Barnett ‘ Blimey it could be Brexit’   Open Democracy  2016

Elisabeth Bronfen The Knotted Subject :Hysteria and its discontents Princeton 1991

Phil Cohen ‘The Centre will not Hold’  Soundings Summer 2015

Frank Furedi  Culture of Fear: risk taking and the morality of low expectation Continuum 2006

Jeremy Gilbert  Common Ground : democracy and collectivity in an age of individualism Pluto Press 2013

Martijn Koonings  The Emotional Logic of Late Capitalism:what progressives have missed Verso 2010

Bruno Latour We have never been Modern Harvester Wheatcheaf 1993

Peter Linebaugh The Magna Carta Manifesto: liberties and commons for all University of California Press 2008

Elaine Showalter Hystories:hysterical epidemics and modern culture Picador 1997

Yanis Varoufakis   And the Weak suffer what they may ? Nation Books 2016






A Poem for all seasons

When  Language is Affordance Enough


It began with a hand

clenched experimentally to ear

not so much a fist

as a makeshift mouthpiece

designed to broadcast  miracles

speaking in tongues:


‘habari,kangarooshni ,slapit

nego,nego,unulti possum!

craaghi ipsit cunnilingo ?

es krampit   todo   kwa heri ‘


a polyglot  mother tongue

Nordic vowels, Slavic consonants

Swahili syntax,Latin verse

and just a touch of Lewis Carroll

to stitch into proper nonsense


all in the hope  some passers by

might stop and listen,

become alarmed,

and call an ambulance,

take me to a  ’place of safety’

where the only voices heard

are  in my head.


But all they see

is a middle aged gent

clutching his smart phone

doing   foreign dumb talk

to someone just like them

in Karachi , Prague or Timbuktu


Once upon a time

before we crossed the emoticon

I lived in another   country

where language was affordance enough .

One day ,  tuned to a secret station

on  my very own pirate radio

I  was talking to my imaginary friend

when  suddenly he grabbed a fistful of  vowels


and   cartwheeled down the street

shouting  look,  look, no hands….


Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down : Some seasonal reflections on body politics

The well known nursery rhyme flashed into  my mind as I pitched forward onto the wet pavement, instinctively putting my right hand out to break my  fall. No it was’nt a serious as the  Black Death, but neither was the searing pain in my right shoulder a benign memento of a children’s counting out game,  to take the two dominant interpretations of  Ring a Ring of Roses nursery  rhyme. I could do the  sneezing  part all right as I had a ferocious cold but later in the A & E , where they diagnosed a fractured humerus, that seemed the least of my concerns.

I do not regard myself as accident prone but over the past few years for various reasons I have become something of a connoisseur of A & E departments. St Thomas’s was definitely a cut above the rest. Of course it had its  cast of stock characters: the alcoholic in residence who spent his time shouting obscenities at passing nurses, the woman giving an all too graphic description of her injured thumb to a long suffering friend (or was it an imaginary companion, as there was no pause in her lyric flow) “and  where the nail was there’s just a purple gash with the blood oozing out, and strips of skin hanging off like icicles..” There  was the usual assemblage of wrecked humanity,  most of them conspicuously poor, both young and old, and much the worse for the wear and tear of their daily encounters with a  hostile or indifferent world.

What made St Thomas’ different from the  other hospitals  was its combination of procedural efficiency and tactical care. The nurse in reception realised I was in a state of shock and promptly organised pain killers and a cup of hot sweet tea,  before expediting me to X ray. After that came the Big Wait, until around 2.am I was seen by a middle aged Polish lady doctor who gave me a rather world weary look and a lecture about not drinking too much. Quite how she had got the idea that I had fallen over because I was drunk, I have no idea. Maybe she just assumed that anyone with ‘writer’ down as their occupation would have a natural disposition  to compete with Dylan Thomas, Marguerite Duras, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote,  just to mention a few of my favourite  literary lushes.  At any rate it made me think that I had better dream up some more or less heroic cover story  to disguise the all too mundane circumstances under which my bodily auto pilot had crashed while navigating some slippery cobblestones. So had I injured my shoulder bringing down an armed robber with a rugby tackle outside  the Co-Op Bank? Or perhaps I had been beaten up by a gang of thugs dressed  as policeman – this  version at least had the street cred of actually having  happened to me.

Sadly there was no getting away from the fact that the whole regrettable episode  was a dress rehearsal for the infirmities and indignities of old age: needing help with dressing, having your food cut up for you, the general loss of  facility  with one’s body, disrupting the  taken for granted easy intimacies of its daily care, a premonition of the end game I had already experienced with  my  dad who is now 100, blind and suffering from serious dementia.

Cue for  displays of stoicism, fortitude, resilience and coping, those weasel words which cover a host of equivocations. So as a paid up member  of the Islington Grin and Bear it Club I have now bought a poncho from Top Shop and  become of  one of this season’s fashionistas, even without the Clint Eastwood look.  I have also started to write emails with one finger of my left hand so they came out looking


an ee



with (out)

the funny bits

at     the           end

On the same principle I have learnt how to shave all over again with my left hand.  My  new diet is spoon fed , I  avoid toast  and  rare steaks and anything in tins. Worse still I have broken the habit of a life time and now   gently tap the shell of my boiled egg with a spoon to gain entry, rather than vigorously slicing its head off with a knife,  thus becoming one  of those crypto- veggies who, like Freud,  equate eating with oral sadism.  I have even  joined the Boy Scouts, being only able to do a left to left  handshake and, at last, many years after reading Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, I have heard  the sound of one hand clapping..

All well and good, but hang on a moment. I try to confine my  macho-masochism to watching England play cricket, rugby or football. I have never thought of pain and suffering as more than an inevitable and unpleasant part of the human condition  to be minimised as far as possible, like mosquito bites or academic bores. I have never be able to understand that version of Christianity which sees something redemptive about suffering, or worse still, regards it as   self -inflicted punishment for failing to walk the straight and narrow path to salvation. The wages of sin may be death, but as someone who takes delight in wandering off the beaten track, I think it is about time God gave us  wayward travellers a pay rise, and realised that without  sinners He and his followers would  be out of a job. A free ticket  to ride on Blake’s  Road of Excess that leads to the Palace of Wisdom would do just fine…

In the meantime I have had to make do with a much restricted regime of pleasure, and an exploration of just what the fearful asymmetry  of  mind and body actually amounts to.  Neuroscience tells us that the left hemisphere of the brain  controls the right hand and arm, and the right hemisphere the left. Lateral specialisation is specific to hominids and has evolutionary value, although there is disagreement as to the cause. Some argue that right handedness became dominant because women hunters used  their left arm to hold their babies close to their bosom and heartbeat, so they could use  their right for hurling rocks, or later, spears  at  passing animals  or menfolk. Others have suggested  that the left hemisphere, and hence right arm, is  better adapted to performing precise movements with tools, for the purposes of drawing, writing or fashioning artefacts. No –one has explained why that situation is reversed for people whose left hand is dominant and does most of the work. Even so,  it turns out  that right handed people’s left hands  play quite an active role; in fact  they are a bit like the sidekick or foil  in a comic duo, who feeds  the lines that enables  the  dominant partner to deliver the punch lines. Our left hand  always knows what our right hand is planning to do, even though it appears to be quite ’hands off’  while   the right hand is so busy doing its hands- on thing that it quite forgets to acknowledge this supporting role.

Its a perfect double act, but when the dominant  hand is for some reason put out of action, its accomplice  suddenly find itself having to do a whole lot of tasks for which it is ill equipped. My left hand, let’s call it Stan ( as in Laurel), is no longer on speaking terms with Ollie (aka Hardy), who is furious at the sudden loss of power. They are   seriously out of synch and sulking,  in revolt against this newly imposed  division of labour. Stan never though he would have to wipe my bum, that is Ollie’s job, and Ollie resents Stan taking over  the clever stuff, like cutting  toe nails  or typing on a keyboard to write this.

Hands,of course are multi-taskers, they stroke and caress, they slap and tickle, they catch balls and chuck  bombs,  they clench  themselves into fists and grab what they  can get away with,  they are capable of the most sublime gestures and the most hateful. Shoulders on the other hand (sic)  have a much more restricted repertoire. They are not so  laterally specialised, and   they mostly  work in tandem. Ever tried hunching one shoulder, or trying to give an impression of off handedness by  shrugging the left shoulder and not the right?  Even giving someone the cold shoulder, which seems to imply that the other one is hot, or at least more warmly disposed, turns out  be more metaphor than model of how this part of the body works. As proof of this,  I have no problem with doing a  two shoulder shrug, but cannot move  my right hand to synchronise with the left’s upward movement  which usually accompanies  the gesture, especially if you are Jewish. What use is an ‘Oy’ without  a ‘Vay’ when it comes to kvetching, and what better excuse for complaining about ill fortune  than an accident which costs you an arm or a leg?

Perhaps it is this apparent symmetry that has made our shoulders  such  beasts of burden. Ever since Atlas undertook to bear  the weight of the world on them, shoulders have been  allotted the task of carrying  out the most onerous  civic duties. While  Homo Faber  developed handicraft skills, Animal Laborans was condemned to  put his shoulder to the wheel of industry and use brute  bio-energy to keep the forces of production in business. Even today when manual labour, like the form of masculinity it  gave rise to, is more or less redundant, or sublimated in various kinds of athleticism, we still routinely talk about putting old  heads on young shoulders, as if the putative wisdom of age could somehow  be appropriated and lighten rather than  intensify the burden  imposed on each new generation to carry the hopes  of its  parents and  predecessors.

It is partly  because shoulders  give such a good impression  of  even handedness  that we  fail to recognise the profound asymmetry at work  in co-ordinating our  movements behind the scenes, unless our attention is drawn to it.  The one per cent of the population who are genuinely ambidextrous  are the object of curiosity, but rarely of admiration or envy. We had one boy at our school who could bat as well left handed as right, he was quite an asset in confusing the bowlers of the opposing team, but  privately, behind his back, he was regarded as a bit of a freak. I think this ambivalence must be   put down to the subliminal recognition it is our very lopsidedness that confers competitive advantage  and has evolutionary value, although symmetry continues to rule Ok in terms of our appreciation of  human beauty and its  physical features.

As soon as we move from physical to moral anatomy, from the aesthetics of body imagery  to the  ethics of the body politic it is a very different story. Now all the latent antinomies emerge into view.Here is a simple inventory of the binary attributes of left and right handedness  whose normative power is exercised   through  a whole range of  social, cultural and political institutions:

LEFT                                                          RIGHT

Profane                                                   Sacred

Sinister                                                    Benign

Ill fated                                                   Fortunate

Impure                                                        Pure

Gauche                                                   Adroit

Slow                                                           Quick

Weak                                                        Strong

So  who in their right mind would be a leftie? It  has been easy  enough  to  find consolation for this unjust distribution of connotations by tracing the historical provenance and evolution of the left/right distinction within   the field of political  discourse.  But today we are faced with the  possible obsolescence of these terms, in a world where the  association of the Left  with forces of   Progress and Modernity  and the Right with Reaction and the Ancien Regime  can no longer  be taken for granted and no longer has the same purchase on  the sociological imagination of the future. Under these circumstances  we can expect a certain regression from the ideological polarities inscribed in the body politic  to an asymmetric  moral economy anchored in a more primordial  set of relations to the body and its Other scene.

We are already familiar with how this  economy works. We  get a perverse sado-masochistic kick out of watching slapstick comedy routines,  safe in the knowledge that  the trading of insults and even blows does not lead to permanent physical or moral injury. Translated from the idiom of body language into the realm of  political aesthetics we arrive at the notion of Concordia Discors, whose organising principles were first spelt out by Alexander Pope    in the  early 18th century  and which have been re-iterated  in one form or another ever since:

Not chaos, like together crush’d and bruised

But as the world, harmoniously confused

Where order in variety we see

And where, tho all things differ, all agree.

This notion of   ‘harmonious confusion’, of a  reconciliation between  principles of symmetry and asymmetry, whether in power  or exchange relations, has been a  key  element in  reaching ideological consensus  around issue of governance. If there is to be a re-enchantment of politics as an arena  of  popular democratic action in which  the struggle for social justice is  even handed  – and not just a lopsided  project of  revenge –  then it will have to  free itself  once and for all from its  dependency on  such organic constructs. But how do we  shoulder the  responsibility  of creating such an alternative  space of representation  when it is so much easier to shrug  it  off as just another utopian project, or worse still, a ‘post capitalist’ attempt  to put Humpty Dumpty  back together again after his great economic  fall.

The fact is that  all the king’s horses and all the king’s men (aka the  IMF,World Bank, EU) cannot fix the coming crisis of profitability  and mass precarity ushered in by the global  informatics economy.  There will be no shortage of neo-labourist proposals for  mending  the  broken   system, and in the short term perhaps that is the best chance the Left has of constructing an electoral majority. But in the long run,  we have to find the common resources to imagineer a  future beyond the chaotic synchronicities  of capital  and  learn to live by metaphors  of resistance  other than  those offered by  the natural symbolisms of the body, however ‘ crushed and bruised’ .  Instead of   alternating  between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ models   of change which only underwrite their  common  bio-political template of hierarchised function,   we need  to invent a new transversal  language, neither cerebral  or scatological,  to articulate a vision of  everything that matters in between. At the very least  that task  should keep me busy  over Christmas while I wait for normal service to be resumed.

Through Thick and Thin : On Public Sociology

Text of a talk given to the Michael Young Centenary Conference November 11 2015


As this event is taking place , by no coincidence, on Remembrance Day , it might be appropriate to start with a personal reminiscence.  I first met Michael Young (hereinafter referred to as MY) in 1963 when he came to Cambridge to give a talk to the Heretics Society, of which I was a member . The society was founded by Bertrand Russell when he was an undergraduate and its aim was to invite speakers who were mavericks or held views widely regarded as  heretical or merely eccentric.  We had someone from the Flat E arth Society , we had Colin Ward the anarchist town planner, D.W. Winnicott talking about psychoanalysis and Michael Young on Sociology. Sociology was not taught in Cambridge at that time,  indeed  apart from its stronghold at the London School of Economics   and   a few regional  outposts like Liverpool  and Keele , it was not taught anywhere much  before the late 1960’s. It was widely  regarded  in higher education circles as an intellectual upstart, a cuckoo in the nest of anthropology or philosophy, politics and economics,  not a proper academic discipline , and certainly not a fit  subject for study by young gentlemen who were being educated  to preside over the orderly decline of what was left of the British Empire and its Imperial economy.    I don’t recall much of MY’s talk but I do remember being inspired by his vision of sociology as a way , not just of understanding society   but of changing  it  for the better. Sociology for him, as it was for some of the early settlement sociologists, was about the struggle for social justice.  This was news from nowhere as far as  I was concerned as a first year student of anthropology  struggling to decode the algebra of African kinships systems and cross cousin marriage and grasp the evolutionary  foundations of human culture.
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To remember Michael Young at 100 is not as simple  a task as  personal  reminiscence.  Legacy is a complicated and tricky business, often subject to   contestation and revision . In MY’s  case  there is the hard legacy- the institutions and organisations that he established , including the one that now bears his name. We can celebrate the many achievements of the Consumers Association, the University of the Third Age, the University of the Arts ,  The Open University, and  the development of the whole social enterprise culture which  bear the hall marks of his thinking and influence. Though, I have to say , the recent  move to close down seven of the OU’s   regional centres  and concentrate solely on  developing its on line services  would  have had MY turning in his grave.  I suspect he would  have supported its  academic staff in taking strike action, on the grounds that it is the most disadvantaged students, those who need the academic scaffolding and specialised face to face support , who will suffer most.

When it  comes to the soft legacy, his influence on social science, it is more difficult to arrive at a firm conclusion .  In his latter years  MY  was very concerned to secure his posterity , and he found in his  authorised biographer, Asa Briggs , if not a hagiographer, then at least a close friend who was predisposed to overlook some of the more difficult aspects of his personality and  big up his intellectual credentials and achievements.  In MY’s  Wikipedia entry,  the claim is made that ‘Family and Kinship in East London is ‘widely recognised by sociologists as being one of the most influential sociological studies  of the 20th century,i nspiring British sociology to take a new path  , away from social statistics and theoretical debate  and towards the close observation of everyday life. In the Guardian’s  tribute on   the 50th Anniversary of the study in 2007,  Madeleine Bunting  writes about how  “the voices they found described a world rich in social relationships, networks of dependence and mutual support that were central to the people’s resilience in facing the adversity of insecure and low paid employment.”  She also mentions how the study  was amongst the first to discover “social capital” and its role in shaping community life.

Jennifer Platt, the official historiographer of British Sociology takes a more sanguine view: The ICS tradition of research, she writes,  was  characterised  ‘by a mixture of fairly loose sampling and interviewing, was largely descriptive , sometimes impressionistic  with no formal hypothesis  and included some informal observation.  There is little overt use of multivariate analysis or statistic tests.The main burden of argument is carried by quotations from interviews.’

You can almost hear her academic lips curling in contempt for what she sees as the  amateur tradition of do- it-yourself ethnography,  whose originator was Henry  Mayhew   with its reliance on  ‘impressionistic’ and ‘anecdotal’ evidence, i.e. on participant observation and informant narratives.

Rethinking Family and Kinship in East London

My criticism of ‘Family and Kinship’  and the ICS approach to community studies is rather different : it is that the  concept of community  itself remained implicit and under theorised,  and  secondly that the ethnography was  perfunctory and yielded a rather thin, not a thick description. I will look at each issue in turn.

The historical significance of ‘Family and Kinship’, and why it became a best seller at the time  is down to two factors.  Its  genius loci was East London, a long established platform for state of the nation debates. And secondly  its novel approach to the   embourgeoisement thesis  whose testing – and ultimately demolition- was a central pre-occupation of British sociology  in the late 1950’s and 60’s  with its fixation on the impact of social mobility and the white hot  technological revolution on   the working classes. The mainstream studies  of Goldthorpe and Lockwood followed C Wright Mills  in focussing on  the emergence of the white collar  and affluent worker,  changes in  the social division of labour and  workplace culture and their effect in modernising  class  attitudes and values.  Young and Willmott shifted sociological attention  from the shop floor  to the relocation of working class communities from the inner city slum neighbourhood  to the suburb and even ex-urb as a result of post war reconstruction and re-housing policies . Their version of embourgeoisement  concentrated on the domestication / privatisation  of working  class life where the focus was on the home not the workplace or the street, on values of consumption rather than production,  a cultural shift which they associated with this geographical move.  And of course what this shift in perspective  highlighted was the pivotal role of women,  in particular the mother/daughter relation. Their work was the first, though not the last, to pinpoint the  shift from  concentrated matri-localism  to distributed but still matri-focal networks of mutual aid and social support as the main  pillar of working class community life.
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Underpinning this perspective  was a theoretical framework for community studies which Ronald Frankenberg spelt out  in his book Communities in Britain. The book  was an attempt  to  codify  the approach of British social anthropology to  community studies as developed at Manchester , under the direction of Max Gluckman ; it  drew on the work of classical sociology and anthropology to construct  a system of  binary oppositions  for characterising   forms of sociality associated with  the transition to modernity:


Status                     Contract  (Maine)

Ascribed status     achieved status (Weber/Parsons)

Community            association (Tonnies)

Mechanical             Organic solidarity  (Durkheim)

Concentrated          Distributed network  (Granovetter)

This schema, familar to anyone who has taken Sociology 101, underlies much of the early work of ICS, though it is not made explicit. For Frankenberg these  are ideal types of sociality which exist empirically  in a variety of weak and strong combinations and have definite spatial correlations. The transition to a modern capitalist society  was for him a case of uneven and combined development  of these forms,  full of tension and contradiction, reversals and displacements .  ICS in contrast saw it as a simple transition, a one way ticket to ride  from Bethnal Green to Greenleigh,  emphasising the losses rather than the gains in the move, and en route, painting a perhaps too rosy picture of family life in Bethnal Green , and underwriting the popular stereotype of suburbia as an arid social desert: Greenleigh as a poor relation to Levittown and the American suburban dream.

Whatever view you take, the fact is that it is not the case  that MY and Co were a bunch of  a-theoretical  empiricists , only that they were more interested in trying to figure out what was happening on the ground than scoring theoretical points. It is  interesting in this regard to consult MY’s own library, which is still in place at 18 Victoria Park square where it is gathering dust and represents  the material, if not the symbolic  aspect of his intellectual legacy.   Like all libraries it is the way books are classified and grouped together, what  authors are  put where and next to whom, and who is left out  that gives us a clue as to the mental map of the collector, his or her enthusiasms and blind spots and how a  field  of intellectual endeavour is constructed. So we find a lot of  anthropology, from Margaret Mead to Levi-Straus ,from Ruth Benedict to Jack Goody,    but nothing on contemporary popular or youth culture , apart from Richard Neville’s Play Power whose lurid psychedelic cover sticks out  amidst the serried ranks of  sober  hard back tomes like the proverbial sugar plum. MY never got youth culture, even though East London was such a  germinator of them .  As we would expect urbanism, housing  and town planning are well represented but there is no section on community studies as such. It is interesting that  there is no place for  social theory , but T.H. Marshall, Talcott Parsons, Ernest Gellner, John Madge  and Jack Douglas find themselves  awkwardly rubbing shoulders  with Bendix and Lipsett’s  1966 door stopper on Class, status and power,  in a section devoted to social stratification.

A second   weakness  of ‘ family and kinship’, perhaps less obvious  in the follow up study of Dagenham ,  was more methodological. The  relations between workplace, street  neighbourhood and domestic  life  tend t o be  treated as  separate self enclosed worlds,  the workplace  as  largely  the province of men , the street  corner  as the province of  male youth and their territorial allegiances and rivalries  and the great indoors as where women and girls rule OK . The Symmetrical Family  does indeed document and argue for the reconfiguration of these positions, for working class  men  to become more involved in housework  and child rearing  and  women in the labour market, but it does not fully grasp the fact  that  these worlds are anyway structurally  inter- linked  even as they generate split perceptions and social/cognitive closures.

We discovered this in our fieldwork on the Isle of Dogs in the late 1980’s .The social geography of the  Island was based on a pervasive  distinction between an aristocracy of dock labour ( waterman and stevedores)  who had regular well paid jobs and the ordinary dockers , who even once dock work was decasualised, did not.  This workplace   distinction was  also a spatial  /residential one, these occupational groups  lived in different parts of the island,  they went to different churches ,  different pubs and clubs and marrying out –ie. getting it together with someone from the other side of the island , was definitely  frowned upon. Social endogamy ruled OK and the local youth culture added its own territorial markers to the social divide.   There were  ethnic  and religious connotations too and  in a way that often  conflated  moral and economic status : respectable /rough: skilled/unskilled :: protestant: catholic :: English: Irish . This social geography did not disappear with the closure of the docks,  and only shifted when the advent of large numbers of Bangladeshi and Vietnamese Chinese families into the area united  all sections of the long established  white working class : they  closed ranks in  defence of a ‘sons and daughters’ housing policy that gave them privileged access to housing stock which they regarded as  theirs by right.  All this is politically  contextualised  very well in  Geoff Dench and Kate Gavron’s book on the New East End,  but my point is   that you cannot understand what is happening in a working class neighbourhood,  its  internal principles of stratification    its divisions of gender and generation, unless you grasp its  intimate relation with the labourhood, even if it is not immediately and tangibly present. For example you cannot understand the trajectory of the  Becontree estate in Dagenham  unless you understand what is happening down the road at Ford’s Dagenham, not to say Ford’s operations world wide.

My own work in community studies has been about trying to show how the  labourhood relation  is  present and transmitted  in the codes of apprenticeship and inheritance which operate in the interior of   family culture, shaping   its  narrative grammars,  its dispositions of mental and manual  skill, its paradigms of the life course,  its prospects on the world. These codes are not confined to families or to workplaces ,  they operate across a range of sites  from playgrounds  to streets,  from peer groups to  formal organisations like tenants associations, wherever communities of practice get established and social and cultural capital  is mobilised around the staking of claims over local amenity and resource;. It is by tracking the modes of transmission and transformation of these codes,  as they come into negotiation and sometimes open conflict with the dominant codes of vocation and career ,that we can trace the hidden injuries of class, the symbolic violence that has been  done to working class cultures and communities in the long and uneven transition from industrial to post industrial  capitalism .

For example to grasp  the full implications of the current crisis of working class masculinity and its current  disembedding from  the culture of manual labourism , we have understand growing up working class as an apprenticeship to an inheritance tied to  specifically embodied  and hence gendered   prides of place and skill. Even and especially where occupational succession was weak ,  male patrimonies were entailed in  the learning of all kinds of physical dexterities associated with inherited characteristics. You had coal in your blood, your uncle’s strong hands. your fathers knack with machines.   This natural symbolism  had a its material underpinning in forms of   boy labour and  the youth  wage. Boy labour traditionally was proto-domestic labour, it involved fetching and carrying and skivvying jobs that put the young apprentice in a quasi- feminine position of subordination in being  mated to the old hand from whom he learnt the tricks of his manual trade. The counter-assertion of a hard core laddish  form of  masculinity, from which all traces of the feminine has been erased, is primary enacted in the street and through forms of territoriality which stake exclusionary claims of place identity and belonging  ( we rule round here)  as well as  creating little  niches in the urban fabric free from adult surveillance and control , where is it safe to have adventures. In this context it is worth noting  that working class  boys’  sexual apprenticeships traditionally mirrored the occupational form , and included being initiated by an older woman,  the mastery of  sexual skills  practiced on often younger girls  and    the apprenticeship of courtship to marriage.

The  shift from a manufacturing to a services economy set in motion  two  decisive transformations in the habitus of the labourhood: the replacement of traditional  forms of formal and informal apprenticeship  with  training regimes based on   transferable skill sets abstracted from the concrete labour process ;  and secondly the requirement  for working class  boys to master ‘feminine’ techniques of impression management  and ways of selling their body images and ‘personality’ as avatars of labour power :   the Post Fordist just- in -time production of the self . It was a pincer movement which  destabilised this whole system of formation, albeit unevenly, across all the sites of its operation. Apprenticeship pulled apart from inheritance and opened up a space for new kinds of identity work often linked to youth cultures. To  trace the  multiple  pathways of this  de- and re-linking of life stories, life styles  and livelihoods,  we need a form of research that is as subtle and multilayered as the processes it is seeking to describe and analyse.

This brings me  to my second point  about  the role of  ethnography in the work of ICS.  MY and Peter Wilmott  were not trained as  social scientists  but they  wanted their work to be recognised by a profession dominated at that time by quantitative methodologies, and they wanted it  taken  seriously by politicians and policy makers  for whom tables of statistics seems to be the only guarantee of  objectivity   putting  findings beyond ideological challenge.  So they went through the motions of conventional sociology, using questionnaire survey methods with relatively large samples  supplemented by non participant observation and some  in depth interviews with a much smaller number of key informants. It was a mix of quantitative and qualitative research methods which did not really do justice to  the heuristic  potential of either.  In particular they turned their back on the methodological innovations that were occurring within ethnography ,as part of its  that would have enriched their research story and liberated it from  the  constraints of a positivist scientific paradigm to which they did not in any case really subscribe.

To give you an idea of what is at stake here , here is list of research methods I have used with colleagues in studies in ex-docklands  area of  London and in  and around Stratford   over the past 30 years. They  have allowed us to produce a close grained reading of the images, texts and other material   produced by our informants in an effort to document and analyse the impact of demographic and economic change on their lives  and life stories  :

  • Narrative Interviews
  • Longitudinal site observations
  • Cognitive and memory mapping
  • Photo-story telling
  • Photo-portraiture
  • Guided Phantasy exercises
  • Video walk abouts
  • Art work constructions
  • Peer to peer discussions
  • Digital diaries and information capture

At the time  some of these methods were regarded as  a bit  experimental but today  they are standard items in  the ethnographers toolkit. Of course some of the research technologies were not available to MY & Co, but many of them were and they  chose to ignore them because they remained committed to a social survey approach.  Yet these new methods,it seems to me , open up a much richer , more textured, account of how urban socio-economic change is actually being  lived ,  in all its singularity and diversity , an account   with real biographical  depth as well as sociological breadth.

These are some of the research themes opened up and explored by this methodology :

  • Fictive kinship and the family romance
  • Youth cultures as social imaginaries of class and gender
  • Civic and ethnic nationalisms of the neighbourhood and their imagined communities
  • Map/territory relations, globalisation and the Cockney diaspora
  • Changing patterns of social im/mobility and their relation to ontological precarity
  • The psycho-geography of race, place, identity and belonging
  • Patterns of local stakeholding in relation to the 2012 Olympic games

Finally in terms of policy , and as an integral part of the research we tested and evaluated the following practical interventions:

  • An alternative to moral, symbolic and docrintaire forms of anti-racist education with working class children and young people based on community art practice
  • The development of an ethno-cartographic approach to participatory community asset mapping
  • An alternative to social and life skills in vocational training based on informal learning and  peer to peer pedagogies
  • A challenge to policing and urban control strategies directed at young people in marginalised communities .

The outputs of  this work have taken the form of exhibitions, films, audio trails, pamphlets and learning resources, primarily directed at the kinds of groups with which we have been working and as well as the usual academic publications.

As an example  of this approach we recently carried out a   multidimensional project in East Village, called Speaking Out of Place , designed   to capture a historical moment of transition in the Post Olympic Legacy  in east London , through the stories, photographs, videos and maps produced by incoming residents and young people.  By documenting these  patterns of inhabitation our aim is not just to evaluate a policy experiment in multi-tenured housing, but to locate what we have called an estate of exception within  its ‘other scene’ , within the  special narrative framework created by the Olympic Dream machine and  its aspirational culture : higher,faster,stronger  urban regeneration.

Public Sociology, critical ethnography and the moral economy of knowledge

This kind of work could be considered an experiment in public sociology, that is a sociology concerned to reconnect public matters to private concerns in C Wright  Mills’ classic formulation and in particular , to treat the sociological knowledge  as a public good , accessible  to a wide and not just a specialist academic audience. Typically this may involve attempts to   widen the interpretative community to include as many informants as possible , so that the  research agenda , methods and even the analysis  become part of a continuing dialogue .  Informants are not used as grist to the researcher’s mill , as pegs to hang ideas on , but themselves take control of the means  of observation and representation. It can also be about encouraging   various  publics  to   exercise their  sociological imagination through  pedagogic interventions. In both cases ,   the aim is to  and  redistribute intellectual capital in and through a mode of knowledge co-production grounded in participatory research methodology.
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There are many ways of challenging  existing knowledge /power structures and just as many approaches to doing public sociology. In some cases the sociologist functions as  a public intellectual and/or acts of a political advocate of the communities she works with.  So the sociological study of social inequality  becomes an evidence  platform for campaigns for social justice, and/or  sponsors the creation of new institutions designed to embody these principles.  However the public sociologist has to be authorised by  the informant community  to act on their behalf. Otherwise there is a risk that she simply substitutes her voice for theirs.

There is also  what has been called muck raking sociology,  the aim being to disclose information about the hidden concentrations and operations  of wealth and power in society, to dish the dirt through some process of documentation.  Whether this can actually be considered ‘sociology’ is a moot point , since  the answer to the research question  is known in advance – it is  always and already capitalism or patriarchy or racism what dunnit.  Investigative journalism meets  the soapbox.

A more fruitful  approach is to seek to validate the situated knowledge of marginalised communities, on the grounds that their very marginality, their lack of implication in power, gives them privileged access or insight into its workings. So we seen the emergence of public sociologies based on standpoint epistemologies linked to identity politics of gender, race and class, and aiming to  provide  these groups with a space of representation  in which they can gain  confidence and trust in their own ability to articulate their viewpoint without  needing intermediaries. Yet if only the wearer knows where and how  the shoe pinches, the actual pain of ‘feeling the pinch’ and the struggle for day to day survival can inhibit the capacity to gain the critical knowledge required to know why the shoe is made  that way and  what alternatives to ‘one size fits all ‘ policies  might be possible. The well springs of the sociological imagination are not automatically nurtured by conditions of poverty  and oppression. Political education,  not propaganda for a particular cause , but shifting  the grounds of common sense so that an accessible  space for democratic politics and debate opens up, is  a vital aspect of public sociology.   More conventionally,  the sociologist functions as  a  public educator, even a latter day civilising missionary, using research findings  as a platform to  spread a more enlightened public understanding on  issues such as  the causes of wealth and poverty, the impact of  immigration, and  the unequal distribution of power.

Running like a red thread through all these  approaches  is a concern with establishing a moral economy of knowledge, undermining  its hierarchisation and fragmentation in the academic division of labour.   This  can take the form of developing  a strategic inter-disciplinarity. Not just an intellectual mash up but  the  collaborative production of concepts and methods which   accomplish a paradigm shift  in the way  a problem is addressed , both as a research topic and as focus of political intervention.   In practice that means assembling  a team of  consultants around   the project and  running charettes in which ethnographic and other primary research material is subject to multiple interpretations and internal debate.

Alongside this  there is a trend  to  create  some kind of  intellectual commons   by building a more  inclusive  community of  research practice  and skilling informants so that they become more or less fully fledged members of it. These are almost always ethnographic projects because critical ethnographers have been at the forefront of  attempts to create more participatory  modes of research. The moral economy of knowledge   certainly has implications for how  ethnographic  material is  presented to various publics. The voices of informants have to be presented  live , whether in audio or video, so that the full texture of their statements  is made  available  for discussion.  All too often ethnographers report  using indirect speech  to convey the gist of informant’s stories , merging or submerging their own interpretations  in the flow whilst also substituting their voice for the informants.  And then they talk about this kind of research as empowerment! The research stories we tell about the stories we collect, the interpretative meta-narrative   we weave around  the ethnographic data  to  give it a  wider contextual meaning ( for example in relation to a particular theory in the human sciences )  has to be clearly distinguished  from the primary source material. The best way to do this is to create parallel texts, so that a   dialogue between the  informants interpretation of their world , and the ethnographer’s  becomes possible.

Finally  an ethnographic approach to public sociology is about grounded theory making. It is not about trying to fit  the material you collect into some pre-existing theoretical schema, but allowing it  to permeate your thinking about the issues in ways which unsettle pre-conceived notions, and hopefully enables you to  make new , often counter-intuitive connections.  The equipment the ethnographer brings to this task is not just about professional field work training.  It requires  the  ethnographer, to steep herself  in literature and the arts, as well as a broad range of human sciences, and, ideally  to  live  a full life outside the Academy, moving through a wide range of social mileux, from the corridors of power  to  the wilder side of town.  The ethnographic  imagination  may be stimulated by  reading a novel  or a poem as much as by research monograph ; the act of  observant  listening and embodied looking in the primary encounter with   an object,  informant, or  environment   . but it does not thrive in the library  or the museum.

It would be wrong to think , however, that critical ethnography is the sole platform for  public sociology. There are  approaches which use more conventional  sociological methods   and are  more oriented  to  civic  or market economies of worth, defining  their  value either in terms of  norms of public accountability and improving the efficiency, transparency or justice of governance, or in terms of the collaborative capacity for innovation in the global market place of ideas. Doing public sociology may thus be another strategy for  shoring up  or extending State intervention  in the economy ; equally , it may serve as a vehicle for disseminating the enterprise culture in  civil society .

Mass Observation, that pioneering experiment in public sociology,   moved in the course of its history from  being a  national network of correspondents  committed to sharing information and insight to an arm of government documenting civilian morale during the war, to a market research organisation in the post war consumer boom. Thinks tanks  are equally diverse. They may be strategies for  weaponising   evidence  to blow holes in opponents arguments and win the battle for hearts and minds. Or they may be   environments specially designed to provide living space  for  exotic   or rare  ideas  that would otherwise be fish out of water.  So where does ICS fit in this scheme?

My sense of it is  that  the Institute of Community Studies begins and perhaps ultimately belongs  within the tradition of settlement sociology, grounded in attempts by reformers of various persuasions, to investigate the social conditions of the poor so as to provide evidence for policies and practices designed  to ameliorate them , whether at work, home, or leisure. Of course it is easy to poke fun at some of  these  early missionaries, like the  toffs  slumming it at the Eton Manor club in East London attempting to instil  the public school spirit  in the local rough trade  through a strict regime of  rational recreation.  But many of the early settlement workers were socialists as well as Christians, and  some  like Beatrice Webb at Toynbee Hall  were engaged  in pioneering forms of participant observation within a framework of sociological enquiry. The reforms in work and housing conditions  they campaigned for were often espoused by the labour movement and the Left: they  were about social justice not moral reclamation.  MY had close connections with Toynbee Hall  and the first premises of ICS were in  the Oxford  House Settlement . ICS  never had the close relationship to its neighbourhood that John Barron Mays developed at the Liverpool Settlement and which informed his own work on juvenile delinquency or Howard Parker’s View from the Boys . Contrast with Willmott’s Adolescent Boys of East London. But neither did  ICS  go in for  the kind of extractive hit and run research which came to characterise  much University based sociology from the 1970’s onwards.

If  the strong point of settlement sociology was its locally grounded theorisations of class and community , today its moral impulse finds expression within a globalised knowledge economy in the form of the  Citizen Social Science . This can  typically involve  the use of GIS and other digital information technologies to  crowd source and validate  locally situated knowledge,  and/or create platforms for participatory  community mapping using a  variety of creative media . The aim is  both to generate   situated   accounts, whether  from big or small data sets , to investigate for example of the local effects of  environmental   pollution or  gentrification  and , secondly,  in and through the research process,  to  facilitate and empower communities of resistance to these effects. One thing CSS does is to blur the distinction between amateur and professional  social scientist,  the real challenge being not how to train up amateurs so they think and behave more like professionals , but how to get professional social scientists to  recognise that they are first and foremost amateurs of the social , fascinated by its relays between things not themselves social .  Whether CSS  is genuinely redistributive of intellectual  capital, or  just a more subtle and democratic way of extracting information  without paying for it  remains to be seen.   One thing is certain  if MY was alive today he would be at the forefront of exploring these new possibilities and pushing them as far as he could in the direction of social justice.

Further Reading and References:

Jennifer Platt Realities of Social research: an empirical study of british Sociologists Chatto and Windus 1976

Raymond Kent A History of British Empirical  Sociology Gower 1981

John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood The Affluent Worker CUP 1965

Asa Briggs     Michael Young :social entrepreneur  Palgrave 2001

Michael Young and Peter Willmott  Family and Kinship in east London  Routledge 1957

Michael  Young and Peter Willmott Family and Class in a London Suburb New English Library 1971

Michael Young and Peter Willmott The Symmetrical Family  Routledge 1973

Peter Willmott  The Evolutvion of a community :Dagenham 40 years on  Routledge

Peter Willmott    Adolescent Boys in East London Routledge 1966

Howard Parker  View from the Boys  Heinemann 1976

Geoff Dench and Kate Gavron  The New East End: kinship,race and conflict  Profile 2006

Ronald Frankenberg  Communities in Britain Palgrave 1976

Nora Rathzel and Phil Cohen  Finding the Way Home : race,identity  and belonging amongst young people in London and Hamburg  V&R Publishing 2008

Dave Robins and Phil Cohen  Knuckle sandwich :growing up in the working class city  Penguin Books 1978

Phil Cohen and Mike Rustin London’s Turning : the making of Thames Gateway Ashgate 2007

Phil Cohen  On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics Lawrence and Wishart  2013

Richard Sennett    and Jonathon Cobb  The Hidden Injuries of Class  Knopf 1972

Richard Sennett  The Culture of the New capitalism  Yale 2006

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello  The New Spirit of Capitalism Verso 2005

Philip Nyden et al Public Sociology :research,action,change SAGE 2011

Joyce E Williams et al Settlement Sociology in the Progressive Years  Brill 2015

Bruno Latour   Re-assembling the Social  Oxford  University Press 2005

C Wright Mills  The Sociological Imagination  Methuen 1967

And now for something completely different

Reflections on the labour leadership election

So, against all the odds, he did it. Jeremy  Corbyn’s victory is already being claimed as an     ‘insurgency’  on the scale of the SNP advance in Scotland, and driven by much the same popular discontent with  austerity economics and ‘business as usual ‘ neo-liberal politics. The campaign’s success is being widely interpreted as representing a shift to the Left, not only in the labour movement but in the country, in the wake of the election defeat and also due to the fact that Corbyn was the only candidate not tainted by association with the New Labour regimes of Blair and Brown. But is our existing political geography with its Left, Right and  Centre grounds adequate to locate  the shifts  that have occurred in our ideological landscape? Or is it the case that our received political maps no longer correspond to the new territories  of affiliation that are emerging?

I have argued elsewhere that our political culture is characterised by a bi-polar structure of thought and feeling[i]; it oscillates between prophesies of doom and the new dawn, states of chronic depression and manic excitement, cenotaph and jubilee.This may be  a  subjective correlative  of  slump and boom economics but it is one which has its own momentum.  Certainly the response to Labour’s election defeat seems to have followed this pattern, from  initial shock and disbelief, through an all too brief period of critical introspection and  mourning for what had been lost,  giving way to a  leadership contest in which different wings of the party blamed each other for abandoning  core values  and then, finally,  the moment of transcendence with  an upsurge of political will power  affirming a new principle of  hope embodied in its chosen leader.

But is there more to ‘Corbymania’ than wishful thinking? Is it  just a manic denial  of  painful political realities?   There are numerous examples of unbending optimism of the will clouding intellectual judgement and leading to magical thinking as  a  defence against the  complexities and frustration involved in actual struggles.  For example to propose to re-open the mines  may work as a sentimental gesture  but  the skills and dispositions required for this to happen no longer exist in working class communities and  a progressive energy policy to tackle global warming cannot possibly be built around fossil fuels.

But to swing to the opposite extreme is equally fatal. Unremitting  pessimism  of the intellect  demoralises people and destroys their capacity to act. Anyone who has done time in a Leftist groupuscule will be familiar with this phenomenon. Every time the workers raise their banners high a great boot comes  down from the sky and crushes their hopes, the said boot usually belonging to a  corrupt trade union official  or labour party  bureaucrat  who betrays the workers interests. There is an addictive form of Left miserabilism that actually welcomes defeats and hard time as signs that the Marxist analysis of capitalism’s  totalising power is correct, and that only  the  ‘immiseration of the masses’ will lead to its overthrow.

Only time will tell if the new style of democratic politics proposed by Corbyn  falls into one or both of these traps. Certainly there is no shortage of advice to pull him off course in either direction. The constant temptation for oppositional politicians is to fall back on symbolic action, a purely gestural tactics of contestation that lacks any strategic or performative power.   It is important then to distance the Corbyn political style and stance  from the subculture of the sectarian  Left whose activism is pseudo-performative and depends on a paranoid/schizoid world view, splitting  the field of tactical engagement into  idealised victims ( the oppressed) and  tyrannical persecutors (the oppressors),    while  licensing the crudest, most manipulative  forms of intervention in ongoing struggles.

The risk is that in rejecting the realpolitik of neo-liberal austerity, there will be an attempt to create a neo-labourism, whether based on a return to workerism, or to an insular one nation socialism. There are immediate payoffs for both moves,for example in winning back Ukippers, but it does not address the main challenge which is to construct a new  bottom-up form of Social Democracy, based in civil society rather than the state.  It is not enough, for this purpose, to re-emphasise the party’s organic links with the trade unions, or even to reconnect with the white working class and BME communities; it will be essential to build bridges to the ever growing middle class component of the precariat, and to the social movements and youth cultures which they have grown.

Tactically the main priority  must be to engage the Tories on their own ground. It is clear that Cameron’s attack will take the form of whipping up a moral panic via the Tory press around the issue of  security –  the threat to national, economic  and family security seemingly posed by a Corbyn- led government.   The fact is that insecurity, ontological, material and social, is an endemic feature of contemporary capitalism, and in particular of the chaotic synchronicities generated by globalisation. The destabilising impact on our sense of identity, the erosion of our ability to connect the past, present and future of our lives into a coherent narrative, is provoking an ever more frantic  reach for  ideological comfort blankets to persuade  ourselves  that we are, despite all appearances to the contrary,  authors of our own lives and in control of our own destinies. The antidote to this delusory aspirational  system  is  to articulate  demands for  material security – viz of housing tenure  and  job contracts – to the widespread  desire for sustainable forms of  domestic – family and community-  life, but not  engineered through the politics  of  belonging   but rather  as part of  a new settlement between capital, labour and the state[ii].

For this purpose it is necessary to  move on from a rhetoric  of  ‘pragmatic’  common sense  with its dumb generalities  viz‘  we place our trust in the common sense decencies of the British people and their desire for a fairer society ‘   and instead  to define and embrace what might be called uncommon sense. By this I mean a counter-intuitive sense of what an alternative to business- as- usual  politics  might entail and a counter-factual grasp of what a more equal society might actually look and feel like.  Take, for example, the issue of  private education. The fact that a parent’s wealth can buy offspring educational advantage and social privilege is widely perceived to represent a form of structural inequality that contravenes basic principles of equity and social justice. Public schools are the preserve of a small elite but continue to exercise a hegemonic influence over the rest of the education system.  At the same time there is an in-built majority of the electorate who would support measures to  abolish their charitable status and impose a 50 per cent intake of free places  for children from lower income homes  across the ability range. Yet so far no Labour government has had the will to tackle the issue, because they are  integrated into a political class whose formation,   if not actual recruitment,  depends on the public schools and the  networks  of patronage and preferment that radiate out from them. It requires an act of sociological imagination as well as political courage to create an  education system that is not stratified into two tiers and which genuinely constitutes a level playing field. But can we do it – yes we can – provided it  is linked to measures that enhance state education at the same time!

That  sense of  possibility  will only become  realisable once  a moral economy of worth is successfully mobilised against the ‘Micawber’ economics advocated by  the Tories with its rigid lines,  at once moralistic and economistic, drawn  between  the deserving and undeserving citizen, between those who  live  within  their means and those  who do not  [iii].  If  the  Labour party  failed to articulate  popular outrage at the behaviour of bankers, speculators, property developers, estate agents, and foreign investors unleashed by the crash, it was not only   because of its  implication in financial deregulation but due to the fact  that it  actually pioneered the marketization of the moral economy through the privisatisation of public services.  As a result  it also crucially lacked   the language in which issues of symbolic  debt, of who owes what to whom, could be addressed outside the market nexus  and in the contemporary idiom  of ‘generation rent’.  Instead neo-labourism   falls back on a trope of inheritance, of one generation holding assets in trust for its successor which belongs to a bygone age when sons followed fathers and  daughters mothers  into their allotted places in the social division of labour.

What the trope both  masks and underlines is the fact is that Corbyn has inherited a dead labour party, a party dominated by a technocratic vision of social change,   delivered through a bureaucratic command and control structure . His task is to create a party of living labour, a party dedicated to  releasing  the creative  power integral to the moral economy of the workplace – something  that  is not reducible to  bio-energetic or  productivist norms  – and  which is also embedded  in everyday cultures of mutual aid,  in all manner of peer to peer networks and  communities of practice. A  Living Labour party   supports  the development of a collective enterprise culture  based on the recognition that  innovation in any field of endeavour   comes from sharing knowledge power, not seeking to  monopolise or commodify  its use. This is the true modernising impulse, and one that avoids both the techno-utopianism of so called ‘smart cities’ and retro –utopianism of small-is beautiful urbanism.[iv]

A Living Labour party must also enact a language of the commons.  Resurgent nationalisms of the neighbourhood need to be associated with civic prides of place, rather than with ethnic or racialized identity politics; this shift in local consciousness, which can and is being engineered through  community asset mapping, can build on and help disseminate  norms of civility and visceral multiculturalism which have emerged in many areas  of hyper diversity in the inner city. But it can also pull upon locally situated aesthetics of land, sea and townscape, celebrated in music, poetry and the visual arts, and  embodied in a host of  popular recreations, from skateboarding and other extreme urban sports  to cycling, walking and  wild swimming. Corbyn is the only Labour leader you can actually imagine  feeling   as much at home  in hiking in the Lake District as in the urban buzz of  Islington.

Such a reconstitution of what Gramsci called the ‘national-popular’  around the values of moral economy yields a narrative  offering a  more inclusive heritage of democratic  struggle, and  should be a birthright of all young people, a link to their own version of modernity. I well remember a black youth worker in Silvertown, East London, who was in the forefront of a local campaign against increased pollution from London City Airport, telling me that he knew all about the Empire Windrush and the historical connection between the  Tate and  Lyle sugar factory and the slave trade, but he wanted to find out about the  now -closed docks, and understand why the dockers had marched in support of Enoch Powell.

As a simple but concrete example of the approach I am suggesting consider how a Living Labour Party might have intervened in the recent celebrations of Magna Carta. In contrast to the official approach, which simply iterated  a ‘safe’ message about law and property being  the foundation of civil liberty, an alternative reading  would  focus on the struggles for enfranchisement and empowerment that have used Magna Carta  as  a rhetorical reference point [v].  Working in collaboration with local artists, the WEA, schools, youth projects, civil liberties and campaign groups  plus a wide range of community organisations the aim would be for each constituency to produce its own  pictorial/narrative  map of liberties and commons, past, present and future, incorporating local  places and events  associated with  popular democratic  struggles. Carta is after all Latin for  map! Whether in the form of a physical or digital map, a tapestry or banner, each constituency  would add its own distinctive features  to a deep cartography of Social Democracy.  Not only would the project bring together different elements of  the precariat in a common project, but it would provide a platform for a nationwide public deliberation about the relation of civil society and the state,  creating   the grass roots conditions for the formulation of a new constitutional  settlement enshrined in  a bill of rights. Evidently  the Labour party which Corbyn inherited is in no state  to launch a  Great Chartist movement, but there will be enough opportunities in the next five years to engage in this kind of activity, and to transform Dead Labour into Living Labour, without the need  for any second coming of Blair Brown.

[i] See Phil Cohen ‘The Centre will not hold’  Soundings August 2015 and ‘To Vote,Perchance to Dream’    Lawrence and Wishart Blog September 2015

[ii] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy :towards a radical democratic politics London Verso 2014

[iii] See David Graeber  Towards an anthropological theory of value:the false coin of our own dreams Palgrave Macmillan 2001

[iv] See Bruno Gulli Earthly Plenitudes:A study of plenitude and labour Temple University Press 2010

[v] See Peter Linebaugh  The Magna Carta Manifesto:liberties and commons for all  University of California press 2008