Saturday 10 June 2017

Lexit's revenge?—A tale of three summers

We all live in our own little bubble. Well, maybe not everyone but I know that I do – and if you are reading this then you probably do too.

It occurs to me now that in June of the past three years, three particular political events have dominated my own mediasphere.

Late in June 2015, Alexis Tsipras announced that his bureaucrat-besieged Greek government would hold a referendum on the bailout conditions proposed by the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Then, almost a year to the day in 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Now, in June 2017, the Labour Party has staged an astonishing electoral surge to leave the UK Parliament hung and the Conservatives running a seemingly untenable minority government with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, rather sickeningly, holding the balance of power.

The reaction of my mediasphere to the first is perhaps best summarised by the hashtag #thisisacoup that went viral early that July. The reaction to the second was that this was, at best, a monumental blunder and, at worst, an act of the most poisonous xenophobia by a bunch of know-nothing Little Englanders. And to the third: unrestrained gloating and glee.

I must say that I have more or less shared in the consensus of my milieu each time.

So, here's the thing: Labour campaigned for Remain but, following the 52/48 win for Leave, switched their stance. It was fairly apparent that their campaigning was, at best, half-hearted and if they had shown the kind of motivation and nous that has been on show over the past several weeks, the result may well have been different.

Corbyn, many suspected, was a closet 'Lexiter' – i.e. Left Brexiter – the whole time. In any case, post-referendum, the party under his leadership saw the opportunity to reclaim ground lost to UKIP and the SNP by taking up a position of moderated acceptance regarding the results (as opposed to the Tories, who took a far harder stance, and the Lib Dems who wagered, unsuccessfully as it turns out, on courting despondent Remain voters).

Now, to bemoan the browbeating treatment of Greece in 2015, renounce the mindless isolationism of the Eurosceptics in 2016 and acclaim the triumph-by-cog-jamming of Labour in 2017 are not necessarily incompatible positions. However, nor is their happy coherence altogether obvious.

Those described as Lexiters (a silly portmanteau of a silly portmanteau but let's indulge it for now) pointed to the treatment of Greece (along with Spain, Italy and others) by Germany-centred EU elites as evidence for the need to reject the EU as just another instrument of neoliberal domination.

Which, of course, it is. Or, rather, that is a large part of what it is and what it does. I, like many, despite accepting these criticisms nevertheless thought Brexit to be a looming disaster. More or less all the mainstream arguments given for Leave were entirely bogus and this was palpably and overwhelmingly an exit coming not from the left but from the most boggle-eyed extremes of the British right. A Lexiter's Brexit this was not and so none of the arguments from that side could really apply.

My own thought on the value of the EU in general for quite some time has been this: There is undoubtedly more to the post-1945 achievement of peace in Western Europe than this institution alone but nothing has done more to cement and secure mutual openness and cooperation as being not only the reality but also common sense for the vast majority of Europeans, on a blood-drenched continent for which lasting peace had been all but unthinkable for a generation or more.

However, among the many actors that have undermined this genuinely remarkable achievement, we must include the EU itself.

When Eurosceptic propagandists whip up visions of grey-faced, expensively suited men with rimless glasses and dour expressions tediously administering the minutiae of our daily lives, they peddle a reservoir of misinformation built up drip by drip over a period of decades. However, the job of said propagandists is made significantly easier by there being a large grain of truth to that caricature. 'Democratic deficit' – this is the polite version. Hardened, unapologetic technocracy – that is more on the money.

The stand-off between Greece and Germany was a symptom of economic integration running ahead of political integration, with elites and publics alike being unwilling to recognise the hard realities of both. As should be obvious to all but the most blinkered apologists, the bailout was not so much for the Greek people as for the German banks – those same banks who happily and knowingly lent to a corrupt government at unsustainable levels in the years previously. The agreement was as much punishment as it was administration – a glorified debtor's jail, large enough for an entire country. Britain, take note.

And so, were the Lexiters right after all? Is Corbyn's 'soft' Brexit the course we should have been hoping for all along? I remain sceptical on that count.

Those of us who were so upset about the referendum result weren't thinking about regulations and bureaucrats, grey-faced or otherwise. We were thinking about our friends, family, lovers who are only where they are – and therefore only who they are – because of the freedoms of movement that have been afforded by the EU. We were worried about our lives and our futures because we are the ones who have benefited so richly, economically and otherwise, from that constitutional and, yes, ideological status quo.

The new political movement lead by Corbyn is exciting but this remains a country with stolid, stubborn reserves of conservatism. I fear for the future and not only because I have made choices that depended upon the status quo that has now passed.

Nobody knows anything, least of all right now. But at least, right now, the watching and thinking feels like something good.

Friday 9 June 2017

Election reaction—The real fight starts now

They laughed, they mocked, they guffawed. I must admit, I too was sceptical. Not because I didn't want it to be true – I'd just been hurt too many times before…

Fast forward. The common sense of both national and party establishments has been well and truly routed. The cadaverous plodding of throwback-Blairism has had its unbeating heart irreversibly staked.

Young people turned out – turns out they just needed something to vote for.

On a personal note (being still, if only in electoral terms, a young person), I was 11 years old when New Labour swept to power in 1997 and 17 when the Iraq War of 2003 kicked off. Gains in things like the minimum wage and being basically better than the Tories notwithstanding, for most of my adult life, Labour has been the party of hubris, capitulation and shame.

This is the first election in my life that I could vote for something, with hope.
Okay, in 2015 I hoped that the Labour of Ed Miliband might sneak in. He always seemed to be a basically decent guy, with his heart in the right place. However, in retrospect, his tenure was the end of an era, not the beginning.

He might not have been a New Labourite at heart (even if he had been in career). Nevertheless, his was still a politics of tracking 'public opinion' as though it were some transcendent, external force and then tacking opportunistically this way or that.

After Corbyn, we we can expect more. We can set the agenda.

Of course, we must also keep things in perspective. This is, at most, Act II of the drama. Party deal-making is underway and Labour has a long way to go as regards its own pool of parliamentary talent. Brexit looms, the inscrutable harbinger of who-knows-what. We do not know, at this stage, who will be the next PM or even how long this Parliament will last.

Nevertheless, considering the avalanche of lies and bile spewed from every orifice of the media-plutocrat-parliamentary complex, this stalemate constitutes a remarkable victory. What could have been a noble defeat has turned out to be a noble draw – and that is not damning by faint praise.

Whether or not Corbyn is a future PM, the Labour of his leadership have created the conditions for rebuilding a new kind of politics in this country.

But what's good is not yet good enough. The real fight starts now.

Wednesday 7 June 2017

In which a PhD scribbler asks: ‘Why am I getting myself into this?’

It is a question that we must all ask ourselves at some point (and those trying to write a PhD thesis must ask more often than most): ‘Why am I getting myself into this?’

There has perhaps been no worse time to be entering (or thinking of entering) the academic job market, at least since the era when proleish schmucks like me would have been repelled by the red brick and tweed like mace to the face. If you’re going in, right now, it has to be with complete commitment; lever fully down; all in or nothing.

To be honest, it’s not a difficult decision. I have no other interests, skills or opportunities – at least none that stand a chance of giving me a liveable salary, with work I can enjoy (sporadically, as it may be). It is a privileged life, even now and even in the all too foreseeable future.

But that’s not yet an answer. I am not just some book-polished pebble rolling down a hill, following the path of least impassability. Why I am getting myself into this?

I am getting myself into this because I like to do the kinds of things that this allows me to do. I love the creativity of thinking and writing about difficult, profound and often obscure things. I also recognise the value of occupying a social position that permits such indulgences, both materially and normatively.

It is, then, a matter of pursuing a profession that permits the inhabitation of a certain position, not the profession itself. I know this to be true for many, perhaps most (but certainly not all). I give less than a shred of a damn about the prizes and puffery; the clawing and climbing. To think, write, teach, learn – that is the allure.

One can certainly chase such things far beyond the gates of the university (indeed, on some counts it might help). However, even now and even in the all too foreseeable future, there aren’t too many places like it. And, with at least a foot in the door, I am prepared to risk said door slamming as the winds of decline bluster indifferently by.

These ideals, as naive and silly as they are, have consequences.

If I write, I want to write something that people want to read and will find rewarding. Of course, there are many genres in which this can be achieved, the genre of a PhD thesis being perhaps the least of them. And that is a sticking point. The more acquainted I become with the PhD as an institution and genre, the more it appears as an essentially conservative medium. That is, like all institutions, it exists to reproduce its own basic assumptions and is blithely oblivious as to what this precludes.

That is not to say that creativity is not possible from within the genre – it absolutely is (and it is frequently encouraged, I feel no lack of that). However, such creativity is achieved in spite of the genre, not because of it. The genre exists to mediocritise. The mediocritic is mediocratic, not in the sense that mediocrity is actively encouraged but in the sense that the basic contours of the landscape make mediocrity the path of least resistance. It is a gulley where fluids flow via the sharply downwards-carving median point. ‘Like it or not’ (and many don’t), this seems to be ‘just the way it is.’

Whenever I’m writing something that someone else will read – like now – I always have in the back of my mind a calculation of sorts. If it’s a mid-length piece that takes, say, an hour to read and 100 people read it, that’s 100 hours of human existence absorbed by that text. And so, it’d better be worth it.

Far more than peer review or my own sense of intellectual propriety, this is the standard that I feel obligates me to take what I’m doing seriously and to put everything that I have into it, however much of myself is available for that given thing (and of course it varies; right now it’s 01:37 and I feel that I should be sleeping). I don’t want my writing to just make sense, be logical, structured and so on, nor do I just want it to be fluid, readable, creatively phrased (although these are all fine, mediocre qualities).

It’s simple, really.  I want to write something good, something better, something rewarding. Maybe even something beautiful. Perhaps inspiring. Inspiring in that head-buzzing, pulsing sense that I've felt only a handful of times, reading words that have stuck with me, stuck to me, that have made me in their wake.

Not that I think I have achieved this yet (and certainly not right now). But whether or not I have achieved any of that, or even if I am capable of achieving that, is not the point. In fact, it’s beside the point.

If I can’t hold open the possibility of being more than a mid-level technician of academic cog-churning then I can’t get out of bed in the morning. That’s what it comes down to.

And this is the tricky thing with writing a PhD thesis. For a long time I’ve put myself under a lot of pressure to get to the point where I can write something good. Writing a thesis, however, is about writing something that’s good enough.

Ultimately, a thesis has a simple purpose: to be defensible in front of your examiners. However, behind that objective I find another that is in many ways more demanding and is certainly more troubling: to have something that is defensible to yourself.

Once it’s done, it’s done – a wise tautology. However, I cannot disengage the practical exigencies of this task from the very motivation that compels me to undertake it in the first place.

Whether or not I am capable of, some day, writing something genuinely, rewardingly creative, beyond the ponderous, blinkered, bureaucratic mush of, let’s be honest, the vast majority of academic writing, is uncertain – and, as I have said, really beside the point. I have to assume that I am capable of this in order for the initial risk that I am taking to amount to more than the utmost hypocrisy.

Not being content with the procedural attainment of a professional bauble (that’s nice but it’s not enough), I have to want something more. By the same token, I have to presume that anyone else who wants this can also achieve it. Not in the faux-aspirational sense of ‘you can do anything if you try hard enough’ (you can’t). It’s not about that because it’s not about me or anyone in particular. It’s about evading the fundamental hypocrisy of capitulating from the very beginning to the very things that the initial risk requires that I resist.

The above feels a little raw, perhaps inadvisable. However, I’ve come to feel recently that I’ve lost my nerve. Not become complacent exactly but lost the sense of urgency that I felt before returning to education (after a hiatus of six years).

And so, I have no doubts that I am doing the right thing in general (and it wouldn’t help much if I did). However, I still have to find a way through the maze of mediocritisation. My conjecture (at 01:51) is that a little more rawness, a little more nerve might be what’s needed.