Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Dispatches from the Same Old + Staggers on generational angst

I'm not very around at the moment, as I'm dealing with a new job and juggling work and book deadlines whilst trying my hardest not to be evicted from my house. But: recent weeks have seen an avalanche of books come out about 'generational' things and how it's all gone wrong for Generation Y, woe and angst and blame the immigrants not the banks. After the predictable panic about argh-I've-got-nothing-relevant-left-to-write-for-this-book, I wrote this article for New Statesman about the epistemology of the trend. David Willetts is the peculiar sort of smiling, avuncular fascist who begins by making you feel cosy and understood and then explains, gently, why it's all because of the women and the blacks. All the links are worth a click: Radical Future and It's All Their Fault are particularly important and, predictably, as they're the ones actually written by people who are vaguely young, they're available to download for free in black, white and pixellated neo-Soviet slogans. Yeah, screw you, Peter Mandelson!


Do your parents love you?” asks Neil Boorman. “Of course they do – but it hasn't stopped them from robbing you blind." Boorman's new book, gleefully titled It's All Their Fault, is part of a clutch of works that have emerged in recent weeks analysing the socio-economic crisis facing today’s young people. Books like David Willetts’ The Pinch and Compass and Soundings’ Radical Future are easing into motion the rusty gears of generational conflict – and none too soon.

After the crash of 2008, Generation Y realised with a rush of horror that no matter how good we were or how relentlessly we hammered our minds and bodies into the grooves laid out for us by our parents, our teachers and a culture of mandatory capitalist self-fashioning, everything was definitely not going to be fine. Instead, we are going to spend our lives paying for the excesses of our parents, who have bequeathed us a broken economy, a stagnant job market and a planet that’s increasingly on fire. This sudden understanding of just how blithely our future has been mortgaged has been festering for a full 18 months, and now a rash of books has broken out, angry and sore, across the body politic.

Most concentrate on pointing fingers at the Baby Boomer generation, currently in their 50s and 60s, who enjoyed free higher education, supportive welfare, good jobs and great music and grew up to own a vastly disproportionate share of the wealth of the nation. David Willetts' The Pinch, subtitled How the Baby Boomers Took their Children's Future - and How they can Give it Back, makes no bones about who is responsible for the plight of the young. However, rather than analysing the effect of the contraction of social mobility on the prospects and potential of Generation Y, Willetts, who hopes to be a key member of the Conservative cabinet in a fortnight's time, advocates a return to traditional gender norms, particularly marriage. Willetts prefers to blame the evils of “feminism” for the crisis, offering a decidedly atavistic assessment of Where It All Went Wrong that, one suspects, was written with middle-aged voters in swing seats in mind.

Unlike Willetts, Tony Judt at least deigns to address young people in Ill Fares The Land, which takes a far broader view of the political psychology of the young, analysing not just consumerism and stagnation of social mobility but the loss of socialism and classic liberalism as implicit alternatives to neoliberal orthodoxy. Judt reminds us that “Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization, the growing disparities of rich and poor.”

Judt, like Willetts, is himself a Baby Boomer. Both men are extremely personally wealthy and successful, at least by the standards of a cohort of young people for whom home ownership and meaningful work are Sisyphean dreams. As such, even Judt’s pertinent, readable survey occasionally lapses into half-hearted apologism, of the sort that has become a hallmark of privileged Baby Boomer commentary on the so-called ‘Lost Generation,’ who are largely denied space or opportunity to answer back.

Radical Future, edited by Ben Little, attempts to create that space, with young people from a range of backgrounds contributing chapters on their authentic experiences of growing up under New Labour. Nineteen-year-old Clare Coatman’s assessment of her ‘Blairite education’ and Noel Hatch’s analysis of youth unemployment stand out in particular. However, the chapters - including my own on mental health - are limited by a sort of desperate worthiness that retreats from real radicalism. Only Boorman's book truly captures frustration of Generation Y at discovering that we have not only been taken for a ride, but are now expected to get out and push.

Boorman identifies the upcoming election as a generational last stand, despite the fact that no mainstream party is addressing young voters and the young themselves see only the opportunity to change the face of the grinning dad-a-like who will be mortgaging our prospects. “We have one chance to create change, and this is it,” declares Boorman – but such panicked generational doom-mongering is desperately unhelpful to those young people on the ground, at the sharp edge of the global recession, who are wondering where their future went.

It can only be good news for young people that commentators are beginning to notice the socio-economic time bomb we’ve been handed, but these books fail to offer Generation Y the one thing we need more than anything else – a long-view. Rather than addressing young people with any coherent manifesto for our social and political inheritance, contemporary analysis is lapsing into helpless rage or blithe apologism. Members of Generation Y already know that this is a terrible time to be young. What we need is the tools to imagine a better world.

The young people of Generation Y don’t need your pity, and we haven’t got time for a collective tantrum. We need to reclaim our social, political and economic inheritance, and we need to do it now. Raging into the void may be cathartic, but only a coherent radical framework will help us get what we want – which is our future back.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Men and feminism: comment is fraught.

Write about female objectification in the comment pages of any major paper and you're in for a pasting. No matter how reasonably you put your arguments variously for or against ladies' tits in public places, you will be instantly, brutally and often personally attacked in the comments, on other websites and in the living rooms of the right-thinking. Oh, unless you're David Mitchell, in which case you get a 500-comment thread all about how fantastic you are, and a storm of gushy agreement on Twitter and in the feminist blogosphere.

It's more than a little annoying that when a man decides to write something positive about feminism - for once - he is rewarded with attention and praised for originality of thought, when lady feminists have been saying exactly the same things for years and have been lampooned for it. Mitchell's article about Cambridge university's pole-dancing classes for Comment Is Free is absolutely fantastic, but it doesn't cover any new territory. On the same site in October, Rowenna Davis wrote a brilliant, witty piece about institutional sexism at Cambridge - and was called a silly little woman in the comments. Any lady feminist on Comment Is Free gets the same treatment, no matter how funny they try to be - look at what happens to Bidisha. Or Bea Campbell. Or, for that matter, to me.

It's bloody enervating. No, it's infuriating. And yes, it says a lot about the barriers of mistrust and prejudice that women face - from men and from other women - when they attempt to say something meaningful in public. But I can't help it. The article -'Actually, you won't find female empowerment halfway up a pole' - still fills me with joy, and makes me want to whisk David Mitchell away to my secret socialist-feminist volcano lair and seduce him (I'm anticipating a dazzling swordfight when Robert Webb comes to his rescue).

Men like Mitchell have a role to play in feminist dialectic. Quite specifically, they have a role to play in educating other men about what feminism means and why it's important. Because feminism must address men, as well as attacking patriarchy. We are long past the point where we can make our arguments only to one another.

And when you're addressing men, it's nice to have a man on side. Because like it or not, men are much more willing to listen to other men than to scary scary women. Like it or not- and I don't - what sounds like a bitchy attack coming out of the mouth of a female feminist often sounds like brotherly advice when it comes from a bloke.

On every liberation front - and make no mistake, feminism is still very much a liberation front - defectors from the other side have a vital role to play. When what you want is to actually share a society with the oppressors in the long-term, when your options for liberation do not reasonably include the total annihilation of all ball-swingin' manpersons, then you have to get men onside sooner or later. And it helps if they can crack a joke.

David Mitchell is one of a growing trend for male comedians who understand that they don't need to fall back on misogynist jokes as part of their repertoire, that lazy misogyny actually dates their work and alienates half of their audiences. Bill Bailey and Charlie Brooker would be other examples of public funnymen who realise that sexism is stupid - so stupid, in fact, that a lot of material can be mined from pointing out the various ways in which patriarchal capitalism is bloody ridiculous. The Daily Mail's feature spread on the toes of the party leaders' wives, for example.

Too often, it's only the men with ugly views who comment on feminist articles. Sexist commentators are a self-selecting bunch, because unlike the silent majority of blokes who don't sit in their pants hating women on the internet all afternoon, they just don't care who they hurt. In fact, the silent majority of blokes are usually quite anxious not to hurt or offend the women in their lives, and their silence doesn't denote absence - it denotes a trepidation about getting involved in feminist discussions, for fear of making a mistake and being lumped in with the greasy-keyboard misogynists.

The trouble is that this process is self-selecting: feminists are so used to being attacked that it's sometimes hard to listen to what a man might have to say without assuming he's going to make horrific, bullying, unhelpful comments. When you're far too used to hearing tiresome internet and debate-room whiners squealing 'what about the meeeenz?', it's sometimes hard to pick up on men who are genuinely interested in women. It's hard to spot those blokes who aren't just out to score cheap points or question your right to speak, because really, there are so few of them. And only more male feminist allies will break this stalemate.

Feminism needs to enlist more men brave enough to admit to having feminist ideas. Like Mitchell, it might be a struggle to get them to actually use the word 'feminist', but 'empowerment' is a good temporary substitute for those still too delicate to handle the f-word. The silent majority of men, particularly younger men, are sympathetic to feminist aims. We need them to be brave enough to speak.

Urgent abortion support appeal: help a teenage girl in Northern Ireland

I don't normally do this, but I'm posting this verbatim from Mara, the convenor of the UK's Abortion Support Network, which provides assistance to women travelling to England from Northern Ireland to access safe, legal abortion. This is a very important appeal - please help by donating and/or cross-posting and tweeting this wherever you can. Solidarity, L.xx

Whether it’s a shortage of mange tout at the supermarket or a friend stranded abroad, we’ve all been affected by the cloud of ash from Iceland. But imagine if you had only a few weeks to navigate your way to England for a safe and legal abortion.

This week, we’ve heard from a number of women who were due to have travel to the UK this week for terminations, including a very young teen who is extremely close to the 24 week time limit for abortions in the UK. She had to miss her appointment earlier this week and is now coming next week by ferry and train – a roundtrip journey of more than 24 hours. Her mother solely supports her and her siblings with a part time job and now has to cover costs of £2,300 (procedure + money lost on cancelled flights + last minute ferry and train tickets).

Due to these extraordinary and extremely difficult circumstances, ASN has made a pledge to fund this young woman £500, much more than we usually commit to a single case. This is less than half of the costs she is facing. We would like to help more. If you would like to help cover more costs for her and women like her, please pledge to make a donation today.

You can do this by donating via PayPal (, writing a cheque (email for our postal address), or by making an online transfer (HSBC/Abortion Support Network/Sort Code: 40-11-18/Account Number: 64409302).

Please mark the donation “Iceland”.

Thank you in advance for any amount you can give – your donation will make a real difference to this family or to one of the other women who have had to re-purchase tickets to travel to England.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Full interview with Ken MacLeod

"Science fiction is a laboratory of thought experiments," says Ken MacLeod, sipping his coffee. The 55-year-old Scottish novelist is adamant that "you can do a great deal with science fiction that you can only do in a very strained, constrained way in more mainstream journalism and literary fiction."

I meet MacLeod at EasterCon 2010, Britain's biggest annual convention for science-fiction writers, readers and fans.

With two hours to go before the opening ceremony, the Radisson hotel in Heathrow is packed with oddly dressed people giddy with sugar and anticipation, clutching laptops and novelty stuffed toys and chattering excitedly.

This sense of childish excitement about the future is utterly absent from more bourgeois literary events - you wouldn't find attendees at the Booker prize, for example, dashing through conference rooms and giggling about gay robots while one of the nation's foremost novelists attempts to explain the effect of the evolutionary long-view on socialist thought.

"Science fiction is about prophetic vision - from the most crude and pulpy to the most sophisticated," says MacLeod, who lives in Edinburgh with his wife Carol.

"It's about combining social awareness with elements of scientific truth and speculation."

British writers like MacLeod are universally recognised as working at the cutting edge of science and speculative fiction, a phenomenon MacLeod attributes to the grandfather of British sci-fi - HG Wells.

"The thing about Wells's work that had such an effect on British sci-fi writers is that he was socially conscious," says MacLeod.

"Wells studied biology under Thomas Huxley and assimilated an understanding of human evolution with social speculation, a sense of the transience of human societies within millions and billions of years of deep time."

MacLeod explains that Wells's sense of "deep time" has inspired generations of socially conscious sci-fi writers in Britain, from Arthur C Clarke to Alastair Reynolds, Iain M Banks - and himself.

"If you have a sense of deep time, you can't possibly think the modes of production we have now are necessarily eternal, or even very long-lasting, on a cosmic scale."

It is this aspect of socio-political prophetic vision that places British sci-fi writers at the coalface of literary innovation.

MacLeod's 15 books may feature robots and Glasgow gangsters in space, but they offer prescient and engaging analyses of anarcho-capitalism, libertarianism and contemporary counter-terrorism.

"Science fiction is necessarily political because it depends on what assumptions you have about the nature of society," he says.

"If you believe that all societies are based on natural hierarchy then you will write one kind of story. And if you think that the market is the fundamental principle that societies tend towards, then you will write another.

"Particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, science fiction tended to envision the triumph of the American or Soviet side of the cold war, projected into space, forever. But after the changes of the 1960s, new experiments began to happen in what the future might look like.

"When I started writing my Fall Revolution series, it was against a background of the real fall of the revolution in the late '80s and early '90s.

"I began with a very simple situation - a scientist in the laboratory and a guy with the gun - but I was also thinking about how to create the world they lived in.

"The whole process was informed by the break-up of the Soviet Union and the sense of fragmentation and disintegration.

"Sometime in the backstory of the novels there has been a big swing to the left in the West, which was defeated.

"I no longer define myself as a socialist, but it stuns me that there's a whole generation of growing up - a generation who are younger than my own children - who lack the idea of socialism as an implicit alternative.

"What might a future without any socialism look like? It's not necessarily an attractive prospect."

MacLeod, the son of a Presbytarian minister, was born in Stornoway and worked as a computer programmer before becoming a full-time writer.

As a student at Brunel in the 1970s, he became involved with Trotskyist politics.

"I was a regular reader of the Morning Star back then," admits MacLeod, who fictionalises a future version of this paper in some of his novels.

"For me, in the '80s, the Morning Star was a voice of sanity in a mad world, even if it was sometimes a rather dull voice.

"The second cold war which happened the 1980s was rather frightening and it did look as if the West and the Soviet Union were on a collision course.

"One thing that had a very strong effect on me at the time was the way in which the cold war was actually being fought out in terms of Western-backed counter-revolutions.

"That period hasn't been properly assimilated historically. It was a completely unprecedented, worldwide terrorist campaign by the United States and the United Kingdom against radical regimes."

MacLeod's near-future novels The Execution Channel and The Night Sessions deal directly with what he calls the "blowback" from Western-organised terrorism.

"I've never romanticised terrorism as a strategy, but sometimes it's easy to feel like you have to keep your mouth shut about what you really think - and science fiction can offer a safe space for those discussions," he says.

MacLeod's analysis of far-left movements is far from uncritical. He points out that left-wing movements have been slow to embrace new technologies, in part because the internet "challenges a set of Leninist assumptions that a lot of far-left groups had about how discussions must and should be conducted.

"A lot of the formal rules of the left are still based on 19th-century communications technology - the idea that revolutionary politics are built around a top-level party line set down by a newspaper, which everyone has to agree with. The internet negates that process," he says, adding hastily that "the Star has a head start, in that it allows in voices from outside the party."

MacLeod reserves special disdain for elements of anti-humanist thought in the green movement, which he satirises in several of his novels.

"I think siding with nature against humanity is despicable. The fundamental thing as far as I'm concerned is that you have to judge everything in terms of human interest.

"There is an element in green thinking which rejects this totally and says that the interests of other organisms, and rocks and so forth, need to be taken into account.

"This is not my view at all. I'm quite strongly in favour of humanity developing and improving, and suspicious of the Malthusian logic preached by people like George Monbiot."

So does some green thinking tend towards the fascistic? "It's much worse than that - at least fascism believed in some human beings!"

MacLeod stresses that he does not wish to minimise the seriousness of global warming - merely to critique the anti-human ideology of some green thinkers.

"Global warming is real, it's happening and it's serious, but it's certainly no reason to believe there's more than an outlying possibility of the world coming to an end in this century."

For MacLeod, a central purpose of science fiction is to imagine a future for the human race.

"In science fiction, as in politics, imagining armageddon has the nice effect that you don't have to do anything about it because it's all inevitable and fated anyway.

"We don't know what the future will look like - that's one of the reasons writing science fiction is so rewarding. But there's every reason to believe that human civilisation will continue into deep time."

Printed in Morning Star on 21/10/2010. Ken MacLeod's next book, The Restoration Game, is published by Orbit on 1 July.

Geeking the left: Ken Macleod on radical politics and the internet

Like any science fiction writer, lots of Ken MacLeod's prophetic visions have failed to come true. However, one thing he did foresee, as a socialist computer programmer in the 1980s, was that left-wing movements would be slowest to embrace new communications technologies, in part because the internet “challenges a set of Leninist assumptions that a lot of far-left groups had about how discussions must and should be conducted."

"The organised left has taken a very long time to be aware of the internet and start using it properly," commented MacLeod when I met him at EasterCon 2010. "A lot of the formal rules of the left are still based on 19th century communications technology, which meant newspapers. As with Pravda and the Bolshevik revolution, who decides what goes in the newspaper was absolutely crucial, as was everyone pretending to agree was what was in the newspaper.

"The top level instruction was, and for some organisations remains, that you follow the party line set down by the paper -although I should stress that the organisation that produces the Morning Star is not necessarily one of those. It has the great advantage that it allows in other voices from across the left spectrum!

"The idea that revolutionary politics are built around a top-level party line set down by a newspaper, which everyone has to comply with, is antithetical to the digital age."

-This is my favourite bit of the Big Squeeful Ken MacLeod Interview. You can read the whole thing tomorrow in the Morning Star and online.

Friday, 16 April 2010

There's just no pleasing some people.

... here's the bit where I'm impolite.

So last night, two hundred well-dressed members of the British literary and political eschelons gathered in the Thomson Reuters building in Canary Wharf to watch three nice white chaps in identical suits jostle for the most recalcitrant position on immigration. The great and good who were assembled for the announcement of the Orwell shortlist got to watch the leaders' debate on huge screens over drinks and nibbles. Television history was made over the clink of champagne flutes, in what I couldn't help feel was a dazzling dramatisation of the alienation of 'mainstream' politics from the reality of people's lives.

Don't get me wrong. It's wonderful to be nominated for this prize, and I'm very grateful to the Orwell Trust and the judges, and it means a very great deal to me. But the featured debate, 'Have the political classes been fatally weakened?' made me so angry I could hardly speak, even though for the first time in three years of attending London debates, most of the speakers were women *and* the topic was something other than women's rights. Because I don't see myself as part of the political classes, and I don't care if they've been fatally weakened. What's more, I don't think George Orwell would care much either. Meg Russell from the UCL constitution unit declared that voters were being 'hysterical' in their vocal impression of having been politically betrayed, and MPs who fiddled their expenses were 'just normal human beings'. A basic salary of sixty thousand pounds plus a free house, travelcard and dinner expense account does not a normal human being make.

The whole point of books like The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London - indeed, the point of most of Orwell's work - was to create a fluent political discourse which talks about most of the people, most of the time, rather than gleefully acquiescing to political privilege. When one speaker explained to the audience that 'of course, all of your children will go to university,' I wanted to stand up and yell, 'I won't be able to afford children until I'm eighty-five!'

I had spent the early part of that morning bidding farewell to my housemates, who had finally been forced out of their Tottenham bedsit after years of frantic joblessness and graduate debt in which all of us were repeatedly denied welfare benefits and adequate health care because we had the temerity to be young, poor and disenfranchised. It has taken two years for us to lose hope in our collective future. Suddenly, I'm having opportunities flung at me - of course I am, I was always the posh one - but my peers are suffering setbacks at every turn.

Over two years of economic catastrophe and personal disaster, during which young people like me have watched our future being progressively mortgaged by middle-aged politicians who enjoyed all the benefits of free higher education and parliamentary expense accounts, I started writing this blog about the rage and frustration of the new lost generation, our generation, and feminism, and bigotry, and all the other things that make me impossibly angry. I started writing this blog because I was unemployed, angry and needed an outlet for my energies, and now I have a prize and my friends have had to leave the city. It is wonderful to have a prize. But any amount of prizes, any amount of expensive canapes and any amount of televised right-wing pageantry will not make up for the manner in which the British political class has betrayed its poorest constituents and broken the hearts of its children.

On giant screens in the glittering Reuters foyer, Messrs Clegg, Cameron and Brown fought to score cheap laughs off each other's poster campaigns while appearing to be men of the people. ITV had to resort to a clunky gameshow formula to distinguish the speakers, with swooping close-ups and colour-coded ties - Gordon Brown chose a fetching metallic fuschia, presumably in order to deflect the impression that he had any sort of red flag around his neck. The whole thing resembled an apocalyptic late-1990s cookery show, with 9.9 million viewers clustered to watch the yellow, blue and pink teams compete to make the best stew out of the economy. Will the swan-faced bloke in the blue tie stave off the unemployment timebomb with a magical cake made of marriage? Or will everything burst into flames?

At my shoulder an Italian delegate nibbled expensive potato wedges. "I think I'd pick the yellow tie," she said, indicating the Lib Dem leader. "But I don't know - the blue one is really the same, isn't he?"

Nick Clegg is roundly considered to have won the debate, a conclusion that may have had less to do with the Lib Dem leader's barnstorming summation and obvious rhetorical flair than with our understanding of the way television works. Pitted against two Establishment villains with broad smiles and murderous eyes the young underdog with the strange hair always wins. In fact it was only Clegg's progressive stance on nuclear disarmament that distinguished him in ideological terms - the remaining 86 minutes of airtime were a pageant of empty rhetoric, with all three leaders struggling to give least offence to centre-right swing voters in "Middle England."

Meanwhile the few young people watching in Canary Wharf drank ourselves into a frenzy in the front row, occasionally throwing peanuts at the screen. None of the leaders' placations were directed at us. Cameron's promises of tax cuts for married couples will make no difference to the thousands of young couples who don't earn enough to pay tax, let alone get married. I'm certainly not going to be able to afford to rent a house with my partner for the forseeable future, and I've got posh parents. Brown's growly avowal of support for our troops meant nothing to the millions of young people whose first political memories are of marching and demonstrating against the war in 2003 and not being heard. And Clegg's repeated imprecation that politicians must not "let the young offenders of today become the hardened criminals of tomorrow" rang terrifyingly hollow for a generation who have had to downsize their dreams and want nothing more than the chance to hold down a job in a world that isn't entirely on fire.

Stepping out into the sparkling Docklands night, it felt like I had just attended the party at the end of the world. The magnitude of the crisis facing my generation is already frighteningly misunderstood, both by the tie-wearing men on the television and the well-meaning chicken-goujon-eating progressives at the Orwell debate.

Nobody is addressing us. And why would they? We aren't influential, or important. We don't own any property or assets, and we aren't likely to. We have neither high-powered jobs nor the organising traditions that would allow us to hold our bosses to account in any meaningful way. We will continue to sweat and toil for longer hours and fewer rewards than our parents could possibly envision, and some of us will win prizes, and most of us will be turned away time after terrible, heartbreaking time from any chance of economic stability and personal dignity, especially if we are working class, or non-white, or unwell, or women. Nobody is addressing us, and because nobody is addressing us, the energy of our frustration is being dangerously underestimated.

Jubilations: Penny Red makes the Orwell Prize shortlist! [and finds more gainful employment]

Penny Red has made the shortlist for the Orwell Prize for blogs, along with Jack of Kent, Hopi Sen, Winston Smith, Tim Marshall and the brilliant Madam Miaow. MM has a full report of the event, along with a photo of herself and moiself looking fierce.

I've only just sat down to process this happening, as the past two days have involved two last-minute freelance copy deadlines, nine hours of sleep in total, and the first days of my new job as Features Assistant at Morning Star. I am, of course, incredibly flattered that the judges (Jack Knight and Oona King) like my work, and I'm glad that people like my blog, and I'm delighted that the blogosphere is getting the recognition it deserves as, in Orwell Prize director MC Jean Seaton's words, "representing reporting from places that aren't getting reported."

I blogged some polite and hopeful thoughts about political theatre and the leaders' debate at New Statesman today. I'm about to post up some more coherent thoughts about why, despite very exciting and pleasing things happening for a full, exhausting 48 hours now, I'm storming around in a rage. Part of it is just anxiety, I'm sure: I felt incredibly out of place at the shortlist debate, with all the nice wine and posh canapes and ubiquitous Peter Hitchens, and the leaders' debate, as well as being structurally exhilarating, made me more angry than I can actually justify, given that I've just won a big shiny prize.

But before I grump off into a sleep-deprived grump, I thought I ought to put up something saying: jubilations and celebrations! And thank you to everyone who flatters me with their attention on this blog. I love you all. Even Vanilla Rose.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Digitally betrayed: blog for New Statesman

Positive engagement with the digital generation interests the political classes only when they want something from us. - read the whole thing at the Staggers.

Vote for choice.

David Cameron has this week expressed the intention to slash the time limit on legal termination of pregnancy from 24 to '22 or 20' weeks should he be elected Prime Minister. We were all expecting this. In fact, Cameron and tubthumping anti-choice MP Nadine Dorries - the self-styled 'Bridget Jones of Westminster' - all but adopted mysterious Austrian robot accents when they swore to be back with the issue under a Tory government, which is just one more reason for us all to refer to Ms Dorries as The Terminator from henceforth.

The anti-choice ideological assaults of 2008 might seem like a long time ago, but for those who weren't around during the big cross-party feminist victory over the forces of bad science, bigotry and state control, here's a precis: many Tories, including the Terminator herself, filed anti-choice amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, their first aim being to reduce the time limit on legal abortion to 20 weeks. The Terminator also launched a propaganda campaign in the Daily Mail, which was contested by this blog in conjunction with many other progressive activists and campaign groups. Pro-choice MPs, with support and encouragement from reproductive freedom campaigners and scientific focus groups who had the hard data on why reducing the time limit is arrant bollocks, responded with their own pro-choice amendments, including one on the extention of abortion rights to Northern Ireland. In the end, a free vote was held, amidst a huge demonstrations in Westminster and beyond. The 24-week time limit was upheld by 304 votes to 233 in the first vote on the issue in parliament for 18 years.

Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg voted to uphold the 24-week time limit; anti-choice apologist David Cameron voted to lower the limit to 22 weeks, in a clear statement that he prioritises moral posturing and misogyny over treating his female constituents like human beings who can make their own choices. A large proportion of the 233 votes for reducing the time limit were Tory votes. And now Cameron has had the gall to ask us to elect him on a platform of forced birth and bigotry. If one has any feminist compass at all, one should not be voting Conservative. Period.

However, on this issue as with so many others, it's not a simple case of Red good, Blue bad. In 2008, The amendment to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland was quashed after some government filibustering, in which the DUP's nine votes on the 42 day detention-without-trial period for suspected terrorists were traded directly for a guarantee that Northern Irish women would continue to be denied basic medical care and be forced to carry pregnancies to term or travel to England to access pregnancy termination services. And yes, setting that statement down in black and white still makes me feel nauseous. When the DUP walked through the Commons to cast their votes for 42 days, MPs who supported human rights screamed 'what were you paid?'. This is what they were paid. The bodily autonomy of Northern Irish women sold over their heads for a statement vote trading our essential freedoms for an airy notion of national security.

I suspect that New Labour expects us to forget about things like this. I won't be forgetting. Not ever. Not about the welfare reform fiasco, not about 42 days, not about the surveillance state, not about the Iraq war, not about the Digital Economy Bill, and not about the cold way in which Brown sold out Northern Irish women. I'm not under the illusion that any of this would have been anything but crashingly worse under the Tories, but I can't blithely give my vote to Labour after this litany of betrayal and disappointment.

In short: on this, as on so many other issues, there is no obvious choice between parties. The only thing that feminists, scientists and anyone who objects to the idea of forcing women to give birth against their will can do is be sure to vote for the heroes of the pro-choice movement, those MPs of all parties who can be relied upon to defend women against the brutal forced-birth agenda that's coming around the corner.

Pro-choice heroes:

-Diane Abbott in Hackney (Labour, sitting)
-Evan Harris in Oxford and Abingdon (Lib Dem, sitting)
-Emily Thornberry in Islington (Labour, sitting)
-Stella Creasy in Waltham Forest (Labour, PPC)
-Lynne Featherstone in Haringey (Lib Dem, sitting)

You can find out how your MP voted on the issue here, at Liberal Conspiracy (via Public Whip).

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

And now for something completely different.

Where the hell are we gonna live...
where the hell are we supposed to live?
The Levellers

The battle buses are rolling, the Tory jets are fuelling up and the march of the nice shirts and sinister wives has begun. I'm technically on holiday, which technically means that I'm technically supposed to sit around reading nice books and writing a dreadful one and not technically blog about the election. So, for those of you who, like me, are already sick of seeing their terrible faces, here is a blog that is not, technically, about the election.

The government has just rushed through a bill called the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 2010. No, it hasn't made the headlines, and probably wouldn't have done so even if it weren't Election Announcement Week, because it's a very, very boring bill. I know, because I've just read it. In between interminable sub-clauses concerning what types of building may or may not be used to store maggot-infested meat* is a slippery little snippet of legislation creating a new dwelling category, 'Houses with Multiple Occupants' - meaning that any three or more unrelated adults living together now constitute a legally separate form of household, requiring separate planning permission and separate housing administration. Sounds like an everyday piece of wearisome local-government wrangling, but let's be paranoid for a second and ask ourselves: who is this set to target?

The practical effect of the legislation will be this: if you're a student, on a low income, a lodger in a landlord's home, a migrant worker, or if you simply want to share a flat with more than one friend who you don't happen to be fucking, any landlord offering to rent you a property will have to go to the expensive beauraucratic nightmare of obtaining planning permission. Even if you can find a landlord willing to take on the hassle, the local council will be able to decide whether allowing house shares will fit in with their "development plan" for your local area - a scheme that has already been test-driven in Loughborough. The number of properties available for people wishing to flatshare will inevitably decrease, rents will rise, overcrowding will worsen, and many of us will simply be unable to afford to live in large towns and cities.

Is this a targeted attack on young people? Let's have a little look at the Manchester City Council briefing on the new legislation:

"Problems caused by high concentrations of Houses in Multiple Occupantion (HMOs) have become an issue in a number of towns and cities across the country. High concentrations can have a detrimental effect on the local environment as well as impacts on social cohesion and services within an area. Manchester, along with other local authorities, has lobbied the government for greater planning powers to be able to tackle these problems."

Manchester and other councils evidently consider people living in houseshares - students, migrants and young adults - to 'have a detrimental effect on the local environment'. They don't like our sort, you see. Not only are we feckless enough to want somewhere to live, we have the temerity to use actual services. The bloody cheek of it.

Let's not forget, either, that those of use who are under-25 and are sick, on low incomes or receiving jobseekers' allowance will still only be allowed to claim housing benefit based on the average "shared occupancy" rent in the local area. Young people are expected to live in houseshares, and local governments will only pay for us to live in houseshares - but they'd rather those houseshares were kept to an absolute minimum. Where in gods'name young adults, students and migrant workers are actually supposed to live is, apparently, not their problem. Starve, move in with mum or leave the cities, they don't care, just don't have the audacity to be young, poor and energetic on our doorstep, thanks.

Where do Generation Y live? Together, mostly. Sometimes because we want to, and usually because we have to. Soaring house prices driven by the neoliberal property fetish and a failure, across the country, to build anything like enough new homes for the past, oh, twenty years now mean that for nearly everyone under thirty, the idea of being able to afford even to rent one's own place is an impossible dream - never mind having a mortgage. No, it's not ideal. I've lived in communal housing for three years, and yes, it's very different from Friends. But there's no alternative; and the makeshift communes of the 21st-century have produced, rather charmingly, some of the most radical ideas and creative projects that Europe and America have seen in decades. I suspected that I was a socialist before I started living communally with other young, poor somethings trying to build lives. Now, I know for sure. My housing arrangements are a significant part of my wanky online bio for the simple reason that they have a sincere effect on my politics.

Right now, I pay half my meagre salary to live in a room the size of a normal person's toilet (we suspect it used to be a toilet before a dodgy landlord modded the place) in an overcrowded houseshare in inner London, the fourth such houseshare I've lived in since moving here in 2007. Nobody does enough washing up, everyone gets on each other's nerves, and we all have to pretend not to hear each other's shagging sounds through the paper-thin walls. We are also family. We play music together, cook together, discuss politics, write together, share smokes and paperbacks and ideas. We may not be related, but we're enough of a family to have agreed to put up a sign in the window endorsing the Liberal Democrats, and we are voters too.

There are millions of us, young, frustrated, eking out a living in warren-like flatshares in every city in the land, and we all have votes, and it's policies like these, put in place by local authorities and blithely given the nod by central government, which engender a strong suspicion that politics has nothing to offer us, that they're all the same, and that the man might, in fact, be out to get us. And sometimes, that's the correct assessment. It doesn't mean one shouldn't get one's wriggly young arse down to the polling station like a responsible person, but sometimes the assessment is correct.

As far as me and my housemates are concerned, we're sitting here waiting for an election, when what we need is a revolution. Not the revolution, the rapture for socialists and dreamers, the big change that's always coming over the hill, the revolution, the kind there's only ever one of. I'm talking about the sort of quiet, radical upheaval that follows in the wake of social agitation and gets things done. The sort of unravelling that prevents the authorities from lashing out at the poor, the young and the disposessed. I'm talking about everyday revolution, revolution I can grab with my hands and show to my friends. I want it so much I can almost taste it.

Looking at these three grinning hairdos, it's painfully obvious that none of them will bring that revolution, even though all three are so frantic to repeat the word 'change' that I keep expecting one of them to voice his desire for the Queen to appoint him Britain's first African-American Prime Minister. Two days into the big push, and I can't persuade myself to feel anything but irritated over this election. Can we have some revolution now, please?

[Muchos Gracias to JH-M for the tip-off]

*Unfortunately for our prospective overseers, the Houses of Parliament are excluded.

ETA: Oh, and the Digital Economy Bill passed. Ugh. Not in my name.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Hang on, is it just me -

Or is this more likely to make wavering Tories vote Labour than the other way around?

I actually tremble before the strategic brilliance of our possible future administrators.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Adventures in hipsterland

A few nights ago, I attended the Hauntology debate at Cafe Oto in Dalston. It was packed with twenty-somethings wearing brogues, drinking organic cider and discussing the traumatic nature of technology. I wasn't even allowed to instantly hate everyone, because some of my friends were there, and I may have cadged some of their pomegranate seeds interesting japanese sweets and nice cigarettes.

The debate itself was excellent, for a definition of excellent that does not exclude two hours of shuffling and quiff-scratching whilst four chirpy white guys in nice shirts discussed their favourite bits of salvaged culture. Dance tracks that sample the laughter of long-dead studio audiences. The crackle and hiss of vinyl superimposed onto digitally produced music. An exhibition based on rotting photographs found in a skip. The death of futurism and the end of history. Found objects, found art, old fads and crazes resurrected and shambling in the strip-lit malls of our imaginations, looking for brains to feed on. A paranoid ontology, haunted by revenants from a past it won't shuck. Hauntology.

Adam Harper, who was persistently referred to as 'a member of a certain generation' (he's 23, like me, and you should all read his blog because it's clever and important) had the most interesting things to say. He believes that this sort of cultural reclamation can be progressive, and it can be utopian. He dared to express some genuine excitement, and was hissed at to mention the word 'hipster'. One word that stuck in the craw of the panellists and the audience, however, was 'retro'; hauntology, the reasoning goes, is not just a special strain of retro, but something else entirely - a nostalgia fostered deep in the psyches of the generation born after the end of history, a terror at the prospect of creating our own culture even as we are surrounded by an abundance of technologies with which to effect that creation.

Hauntology is a pitch-perfect orthodoxy for a new generation of smart, suspicious hipsters. Douglas Haddow said it best in 'Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilisation':

"Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion. An amalgamation of its own history, the youth of the West are left with consuming cool rather that creating it..The dance floor at a hipster party looks like it should be surrounded by quotation marks.The dancers are too self-aware to let themselves feel any form of liberation; they shuffle along, shrugging themselves into oblivion"

What Haddow and others spotted in the mid-noughties was the sharp end of a cultural phenomenon that has now diffused into the mainstream, substituting a timid irony for authenticity in political as well as creative arenas. It is this sort of thinking that allows young people with nice haircuts to remain convinced of their own alienation from the overculture whilst voting for the Conservative party.

Let's not forget that Boris Johnson rode into City Hall in 2008 on a wave of irony. LOL, Boris! Isn't he a leg-ernd? What a dude! Look at his hair! He's even on Have I got News For You! 'Lolboris' political recalcitrance goes hand in hand with contemporary British hipster culture, as does deliberate political apathy, refusing to vote as a silent, solipsistic protest at the futility of, well, everything, sort of. Most of the young people I spoke to on Thursday night were not intending to vote at all, although there were a couple of Tories in fake-fur boleros and oversized spectacles. The overwhelming impression is one of horrified intransigence, like a party held on the central reservation of a major motorway. Everything is moving so brutally fast in both directions that any movement more decisive than a small ironic shrug might knock us into the oncoming traffic.

Without courage, our generation is doomed to another decade of political disenfranchisement and shit music. But courage is - crucially - not something that we are incapable of demonstrating. Our boldness and our innovation break through in the most curious of ways. The most important contribution of the evening came from Jesse Darling, a young artist in the audience* (as transcribed it in my best scrawly shorthand):

"I don't think we're all scared of the future. In fact, I think Generation Y is constantly looking for ways to cite itself. You talk about crackly soundtracks and mold-growing photographs, but a digital track doesn't crackle; a JPEG doesn't decay. It doesn't have the decency. Your technostalgia is nothing to do with me."

*Who was, for some reason,clutching a five-foot foam-rubber crucifix in one hand and a pregnant friend in the other, like some manic re-imagined Spirit of Easter come to eat all your branded chocolate and shout at you.