Wednesday 19 November 2008

Say you want a revolution

'Revolutions are the locomotives of history.' Marx, Class Struggle In France

'I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.” Brave New World

For three days I've been racking my brains for a witty and incisive new angle on current affairs to post on this blog that I love so much. Three days huddling on top of a tiny merciful space heater, drinking endless sugary tea in a cold North-London commune ringing with the hacking petrarchan coughs of smokers with chest infections: it's winter, we can't afford 5-a-day or red meat, we're precariously employed or unemployed, we're battling winter depression, viz: we are all sick. Here is the arena of the unwell: we have reached it. Nothing to do but scramble for dog-ends in the bottom of beercans, eat plain pasta and play thrash guitar late into the night whilst hallucinating Grant Morrison in between frantically applying for every job we can find. Dicking around with each other's hearts and groins because there's nothing else to do in the baby-killing socialist utopia of Haringey.

We didn't think it would be this hard.

The reason I can't quite summon a sparkly opinion about the US president-elect, or the various ways in which George Osborne is a disgrace to right-wing social economists everywhere, or what the car-crash spectacle of I'm A Celeb 2008 really signifies, is a lingering sense of betrayal. We're good kids. We did everything we were told to do: we went to the schools our parents picked for us and then to university because that's what everyone does these days, because everyone knows you need a degree or two to get yourself employed even if it lands you in crushing debt. Somehow, we made it through three years of higher education only to find that our parents' generation finally broke the economy for us and no degree in the world is going to make us any more employable, or fit us out with the training we need to make decent lives for ourselves. They told us that if we worked hard and did as we were told and stayed off the crack and didn't get pregnant, then the shiny new neo-liberal free-market world would be our playpen. They told us that if we behaved, we'd all get jobs in advertising and end up partying at Bungalow 8 with Peaches Geldof and Jaime Winstone. They lied.

And you know what? I'm sick of being lied to. I'm sick of accepting a shitty deal for myself and my loved ones because I'm told that it can't be any different. I'm sick of swallowing nonsense from a nominally liberal government that refuses to tax the wealthy to fund decent healthcare and welfare for people on the ground and yet comes up with untold billions when a real banking crisis hits. I'm sick of being told that nothing can change. I just don't believe it any more.

What the neo-liberal consensus has been achingly effective at doing is persuading the generation that has grown up knowing nothing else that there can be nothing else. We hear of different political paradigms like fairy stories, with international communism as the wicked old witch who gets cooked in her own oven at the end of chapter three. But in real life, the story goes on. The kids grow up, and the honey walls of the gingerbread cottage begin to crack and crumble.

And now the sheen has worn away, we can see with older eyes that although we are living in one of the richest countries in the world, with more than enough credit to its name for every citizen to live a comfortable and free life, millions of us still live in poverty, misery and personal and economic servitude. The amount that our government has spent on trident, the Iraq war and the maintenance of a massive standing army over the past three years could have eradicated child poverty in Britain. There is a choice here, and it's a choice that our elected leaders are making for us every single day.

The way the right and left wing corps in the press have used the tiny body of Baby 'P' as a bargaining chip is vile. But the point stands that there remains a vanguard of British citizens who continue to believe that, in a pinch, the state is there to protect their children. The state is there to enact justice and social decency. Our expectations of the state are justly high, and if the state fails in its duty, it deserves to be raked over the coals. There remains a social democratic consensus beating just below the surface of the British psyche, and the nation's response to the horrific case of Baby P bears that consensus out.

There is a hunger in this country for social democracy, for socialist ideals if not for socialism itself, and that hunger will only rumble the louder as this recession bites. Change needs to happen, and fast. As Saint Toynbee pointed out in a recent Guardian article, the last recession created a lost generation of young people entering the workforce unable to find jobs. I fear that the slow creak of social stagnation has already begun for my peer group, and that this time our leaders' failure to adapt to the transition between the information age and the industrial age will take a cruel chunk out of our futures. Whilst ministers squabble about how and whether and when to fund skills training, a generation of 16-to-27- year olds slides slowly into unemployment. We are not asking for the earth. We are asking for the chance to earn our keep.

When I say I want a revolution, I don't mean blood in the streets. Since 1688, this country has had a proud tradition of sweeping social change effected without the death of millions. When I say I'd like to see revolution in my lifetime, what I mean is that I'd like a government with the balls to give us what we need. Welfare that is positive, not punitive. A commitment to on-the-job training, along with more pressure on businesses to fill the gap in skills training that the state cannot fill on its own. A commitment to instituting a living wage, so that anyone can support themselves in a job of work and so that a life on benefits isn't truly the easiest option. A commitment to flexible working and to European working-time directives, making it easier for women and those unable to work full-time to really contribute to the economy and to their own lives. A commitment to taxing high-end financial transactions and to increasing the income tax payable by the wealthiest 10%. A commitment to chasing state money held in offshore accounts and channelling it back into the larders and school lunchboxes of the needy. Would I like to see David Miliband dressed in green and challenging the Sheriff of Nottingham to an archery contest? It'd be good for a giggle, but give me the rest and I'll go home happy.

Ask most of our generation if they think we'll ever see a socialist revolution in this country and they'll laugh at you. The Poppy Project laughed at me when I told them the sort of systemic change I believed was needed to end prostitution - but when I suggested that campaigning for a living wage would do a great deal to reduce the numbers of poor women choosing prostitution, they nodded in agreement, before suggesting that we get 'back to the real world'. But this IS the real world. Exploitation, suffering, class, race and gender discrimination happen, and part of the reason that they happen is that my generation has accepted the neoliberal paradigm that allows them to happen.
Today, Jacqui Smith's prostitution proposals have been made public: another moralising legal solution to a problem that can only be solved by a commitment to systemic social change. How we get there isn't the immediate problem: first, we need to say that this is not good enough. We need to say we want a revolution. Even quietly, in empty rooms, in the privacy of our heads, we need to reject the lie that this is the best of all possible worlds. Say you want a revolution, because - sometimes - even just wanting it is enough.


  1. I think my first comment here and just to say how I enjoyed that heartfelt and timely post, John leCarre said we'd need to close the public schools to affect real change and Billy Bragg said we'd need to close the pubs for a while to get some revolution. I think both. But I somehow think Britain is not up for a revolution but it does want the change as you say. At least what we need is a viable political movement that is not neoliberal, that's my starting point.

    (also the word verification is- sneptil- which sounds like some kind of lozenge that might help your various winter symptoms).

  2. Not while you reckon that sex is a service or a commodity, it's not.

  3. I dunno, Tyra, maybe you're just getting better sex than me. What, precisely, is your point, love?

  4. Seems like if you want to change things to the better you're an "idealist" that's not living in the "real world."
    What the hell is the "real world" anyway? I, for one, wasn't aware that there was a false one to begin with!

  5. Sounds like reformism to me.

    This is positive.

  6. For a practical consideration from the "real world" if you get rid of the "large standing army" then society finds itself with a sudden abundance of unemployed people with few marketable skills bar beyond physical strength and a willingness to do violence. Add on to that the chip on their shoulder over loosing the job they've committed their life to, and you've got a bit of a situation.

  7. What the hell is the "real world" anyway?

    It's a powerful gambit that posits a hypothetical reality where the arguments of one's opponent are irrelevant, and therefore not worth discussing.

    It's also the refuge of a beaten person.

  8. I think left needs to talk more about the fundamental betrayal at the heart of the neo-liberal dream.

    It's an economic approach based on pacifying as large a percentage of the population as possible by getting them to believe that they can have a level of relative material comfort that, in reality, many will never have at all and many more can't have on a permanent basis as a direct result of the effects of neo-liberal policies.

    I don't think there's any need for a revolution, though. The policies you're suggesting could easily fit into the manifesto of moderate centre-right party in Scandinavia (or even France or Germany), so hopefully they might get taken up by the centre-left here at some point.

    Moderate social democracy is the way to go. Things get better and no one gets shot.

  9. Given that child poverty is measured as a percentage of those who are beneath the median income, a massive reccession should be excellent for the poor. If all just stop working and starve together there won't be any poor people at all...
    As far as i'm concerned the argument for raising taxes to reduce inequality is alot more dubious than that of raising taxes to help those who find themselves in absolute crushing poverty.
    Having said that, you do make an excellent point about how ill informed state interference in the education system has shafted a large number of young people. I'd suggest that rather than asking for more of the same they should try some independent study. Never been a better time for it.

    PS There are some people who'd rather be prostitutes than work in sainsburys.

  10. Ta for restoring some of my faith in the future, pennyred. Next - how do we (by which I mean mainly 'you', here) link up with like-minded people in order to make a difference? There are all sorts of half-dead leftist groups out there with some of the solutions, but I can't really see any of them ever delivering, more's the pity.


  11. Nice post but I have too points.

    1. What if the government you criticise is socialist?

    2. You use the internet to blog. Why not use it train yourself. It's what I did after I realised my history degree was worth nothing.

  12. My point, love, is that if you want to change the world, you've got to first change yourself. Wanting a revolution will change nothing unless you're prepared to interrogate your own prejudices...

  13. Tyra - yes, you're right. And, in fact, I do interrogate my own prejudices, and my own privilege, every single day. You'll notice retraction posts peppered around this blog where I've grown up and had my mind changed. But this issue isn't one of those times - sorry.

  14. OK Tyra, please can you let us all know when Penny's changed herself sufficiently that we can all have our revolution? Stay sharp - there's millions of people going to drown in Bangladesh if we don't sort this out ASAP.

    Sorry about that moment of snark, but I think that repeating the tired of 'first change yourself' mantra is to completely miss the point. Penny's call for revolution above is based on a moment of recognition that the shit that's happening to her and her friends is _not their fault_, but a systemic property of the socio-economic structures they're in. We need to change that, not ourselves. We're fine, ta.


  15. Sorry, for 'tired of' above, read 'tired old'. I must not post while still annoyed - it always knackers my proofreading standards.


  16. Socialism is a bad idea. The simple disagreement between our opinions shows that any turn towards more socialist and collectivist intervention and decision will make our world worse. Despite everything, being US the richest country in the world is empirical proof enough that markets, individualism and self-indulgence are succesfull. And the best thing is that if we want we can still do charity in a free world. If you want you can pay someone elses healthcare and schooling.

    Ever read the BIG book called "Socialism" by Ludwig Von Mises? I see that you are a very literate person. Knowledge is always good. Care to share a book for me to read?

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