Some thoughts on the General Election of June 2017

The General Election of June 2017 will be remembered for the shock advances made by the Labour Party and the failure of the Conservatives to gain an overall majority. The Conservative Party, led by Theresa May, then desperately struck a deal with the DUP, the party emerging from Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’, a group with a terrorist past.

May’s speech outside No.10 on June 9 announcing this deal was disgraceful. She used ‘the appalling attacks in Manchester and London’ to legitimise her lack of legitimacy, which was utterly disgusting in itself. She is seeking power through former terrorists to attack current ones. She seeks power for power’s sake in the name of ‘cracking down on the ideology of Islamist extremism and all those who support it.’ We need to write these moments down for later, remember them, they are revelations of the elite establishment’s game of ‘ruling over’ at any cost, not ‘ruling for’. These very old underground wells of power are usually hidden, but here they are suddenly revealed, as Burroughs wrote, in ‘the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.’

Yes, the attacks were appalling, but what have any of them got to do with the EU? And May is seeking to address the attacks with the Unionist Party? And she uses the words ‘legitimacy and ability’ and ‘certainty’? And the Queen has given assent to all of this? It is time for the full rejection of the entire elite assemblage: Here is dialectics at a standstill; the profane illumination at zero-hour, the sick freeze frame.

But I was braced to return to the sociopathic Britain on bad steroids I know: The further rise of this weird, refigured octopoid far right like a constantly morphing and returning super-flu. The privatisation of everything. The end of even the concept of a public good or a commons. A pro-laissez-faire government, for half a decade. Further advocacy that we go more Thatcherite, which isn’t even possible, even if you want it, as nobody is giving stable or worthwhile work in signficant quantity. At least if we’re all supposed to go out for the loot then give us a situation where it’s actually possible without turning to crime: But I don’t want that situation and I never did. I want a strong and fair democratic state.

We have been so far adrift from that for so long that I don’t think most of us fully realise it. Everything was a lie, but people aren’t so stupid, even if they can be gullible. The great dream of upward mobility is dead, but so is the safety net, which has turned into a prison fence in universal credit, permanent surveillance. This was the first glimpse that Labour might win, just working through the obviousness of that, and the undealt with crash of 2008. Something had to happen.

The Tories couldn’t have lost it more thoroughly if they had actively tried to. The dementia tax, ‘we will take your home if you get dementia, to “care” for you, but not anyone else.’ Trying to take Halifax at the same time as they close hospitals there, and in nearby Huddersfield: Even a tolerable death seems out of our grasp. The older have been denied the work of youth and the youth denied the possibility of getting old – culturally – and none of us can be fully adult in any of it. Even those with permanent contracts on full time hours are scared to the living death of slipping down into the chaos below. This is about everyone’s lives, it is about all our qualities of existence. Even those with lots of money, their children would have had to live with the walking dead, everyone would have been affected, not just those ‘below’ them. The situation was one in which just being a decent citizen was very hard. This situation has been partially refused, but it is only partially. Although partial is good enough for now because the only response to a Tory landslide would have been some sort of internal exile, no more ‘out there’.

But this isn’t a panacea. The continuing and escalating carpet bombing of disingenuous media, superficial messages and fragmentary images has not stopped. Labour have a very hard task, they now have to convince those who didn’t vote for them this time, should we have another General Election. This will be more of a stone-squeezing exercise than the campaign Labour have just fought. But the Tories have to deal with Brexit and stagnating wages, this toxic cauldron has not been neutralised and its impact on the country could have been scapegoated onto Labour by the right. There are great mercies here. The Tories face two opposite pressures now, to move both fast and slow. The tension might bust them. Labour equally have pressures that could buckle them internally. Try not to throw up your hands at the first thing that goes wrong, there will be screw-ups, because what is being attempted is genuinely radical.

But all over my social media I see people celebrating as though Labour actually won: They didn’t; we must be much more cautious. The tropes bang onto the timelines with little thought, creating naive imagery pileups. One quotes Marx on the Labour Party, Chartists and Utopia: Firstly, Marx and Engels were just as often sniffy about both Labour and the Chartists; secondly I could find quotes from the Marx-Engels correspondence that equally fit this moment, on the late nineteenth century failure of the north to produce anything like a revolution.

These people will no doubt bemoan my lack of ‘faith’, but I am proud of it, because properly calibrated cynicism is a potent philosophical tool, where ‘belief’ is a dangerous one. What happened here was nothing short of miraculous though. I grant you that and fully celebrate it with you: But perspective is exactly what is needed now in order to pull off the main event.

Many of the posturing ones are university workers, like me, except those universities are now run by centre right business elites, which makes the revolutionary rhetoric even more ridiculous. At 9.30 in the morning of the historic day of the election result, in which Canterbury and Kensington both went red, the Vice Chancellor of one of the universities I work for sent an email around to all staff:

‘Dear colleague’ he began, after ‘the heat and noise of the General Election campaign we now must prepare ourselves for a period of instability, with a hung parliament and a minority government.’ He then described the ‘four freedoms’, which he defined as ‘movement of people, goods, services and capital’ saying that they ‘are indivisible’ (after, of course dividing them into four parts). The ‘four freedoms’? The freedom to sell yourself or languish in a doorway. He then made a highly cryptic statement, that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’

‘The university sector cares about borderless access to students and staff, research and innovation funding’ he continued: No it doesn’t, it cares about being a business. You don’t even get access if you live right next door to the university, unless the fees are paid: You don’t need to look to national borders to find barriers to access.

‘But more will be asked of universities’ he says, we ‘will be required to demonstrate our social and economic value and to play a full role in this regard.’ So that would be the ‘four freedoms’ then? Cream surplus value for yourself or sink, and stuff everyone else. Prove there’s a worth to your work beyond what it actually is that fits into the so-called ‘four freedoms’ of capitalism. If your work does not fit this grid, force it in until it does, even if its shape is fundamentally altered through doing so.

He then says that ‘we’ have ‘always maintained that a tough stance on immigration was likely to have a significant impact on universities’, that the ‘government cannot achieve its lower net migration target without a major reduction in international student numbers.’

This statement says ‘you voted for this fundamental erosion of the game I play and now I am going to hurt you.’ These wizened neoconservatives will be crawling out from under their stones all over. I would rather remain outside academia for the rest of my life with a healthy society than stay in it under their vision: But that may simply come to pass.

This, finally, is what we have to face: That these underground wells of power we can see briefly will not magically dry up anytime soon; sinister forces really do lie behind the sliding scenery. We must of course focus our anger at that situation into our efforts to overcome them, but history is not fully on our side yet.

However, I now feel a powerful complex of staunch refusal, yearning, and an autonomously operating philosophy of active cynicism: These are not self-effacing forces, they are motive ones.


The Corrie Deep Blues

Walking through Piccadilly Station the other day, after going to see the memorial to the dead of the M.E.N Arena atrocity, a trumpet blared out, weary and bitter. Suddenly it focused into the Coronation Street theme tune. I looked up and a couple of guys were sat drinking in the upstairs bar. One of them had opened his instrument case, taken out his trumpet and blasted out this tune. I scrambled for my iPhone and managed to record him just before he stopped, mid-flow. They looked hammered. People cheered. A couple of clippings exist, from Bradford Telegraph & Argus in the late 1960s, which cover the arrival of the American jazz player Roland Kirk, for a gig at the university. The matter-of-factness of these clippings cannot contain the lively sense of culture-clash, which begins right at the moment the completely blind Kirk emerges from a van in a boiler suit, asking cars to go around him. He then dines with the Telegraph & Argus correspondent, who feels it important to note that the waiter is thrown off-balance by his order of red meat, fish and vegetables, on the same plate: ‘Surf and Turf’ had not yet arrived in Bradford. Kirk then expressed his admiration for the Coronation Street theme tune, which he considered to be a ‘deep blues number’. It is, of course, but for the white working classes Coronation Street represented, it signified other things too, grittiness, a sense of stoicism and ‘northerness’, albeit reduced to a grainy surface. None of these aspects are incommensurate with ‘the blues’, but it is interesting to note how cultural documents can slip, and we can take a new sense of what the theme tune means. I wrote about this for the Ways of Looking festival in Bradford: Surf and Turf on Thornton Road. In Piccadilly Station it is taking on a whole slew of other meanings, as are all kinds of objects on the Manchester landscape at the moment.

The turn to Neobelief

The attention of the social sciences to what became known as ‘mobilities’ is very welcome, particularly the excellent work done by the Mobilities journal and its extended networks, with a (roughly speaking) centre at the University of Lancaster.

Mobilities ‘examines the large-scale movements of people, objects, capital, and information across the world’, and carries a strong sense that the elite are globally active, very mobile, while the worst off are not mobile at all.

But ‘mobilities’, like ‘cultural capital’ and a slew of other Bourdieusian terms – in fact any social science category you care to name – can be skewed and reified, made more solid than it is, less mobile in itself. When this happens it can happen in a bad order, politically, ideologically.

There is good evidence for the reification of the term ‘mobilities’ in mainstream media. In the Financial Times recently, David Goodhart claimed himself as an ‘anywhere’, a mobile, successful upper class boy. His middle class status and his mobility were all of a piece: The proof of one confirmation of the other; but Goodhart sides with the ‘somewheres’, those rooted in the landscape with strong ties to place, but without the ability, or rather the human capital, to flourish elsewhere.

Goodhart sets up the class divides of Britain as consisting roughly of a quarter of mobile ‘anywheres’ and a half of rooted ‘somewheres’. The ‘somewheres’, although not all of a piece, contain, in his analysis, Nigel Farage’s supporters. Goodhart himself has become sympathetic to Farage’s comments that he felt uncomfortable on a train in Britain when he couldn’t hear any English being spoken.

This appears to allow Goodhart to make the intellectual and ideological journey to the right that wishes to transport the ‘anywheres’ that he tellingly doesn’t mention in his article, the stateless refugees, out of the country.

Goodhart locates his empathetic shift to the ‘somewheres’, the rooted, in his dissatisfaction with Etonian Marxism, which in turn is located in his failure to make 1st XI football and 1st XI cricket team. This is not just nauseating tripe, it is dangerous, delusional rhetoric. He says:

‘If you went to the most famous school in the land you are often regarded as a social freak, a tourist in your own country.’

Goodhart is not a tourist in his own country: He claims that he is so on the front page of an FT supplement; the statement itself and the place of stating it eat each other.

What he was really doing was marking a clear rightward shift in the Financial Times, which could be detected all over that issue (18/03/2017).

Goodhart suffers from that minor malaise that many privileged people do, and the middle classes generally: They thrive anywhere, but do not feel they ‘belong’, like the the lower orders, and they want some of that warm, sexy, gritty, authentic and real world for themselves.

Except that ‘world’ is a constructed fantasy of their own. Like any constructed vision it edits certain things out and retains others. What they want is all of the perceived social ties without any of the agonism, struggle, pointless labour and fruitless searches for meaning the lower working and underclasses have. They want what they see as the community of the ‘somewheres’ without any of its problems, but with the cars, houses, fine wines and clothes of the ‘anywheres’.

They want to be in with the ‘somewheres’ but in the sense of, you know, the captain of the rowing team. The fact that Goodhart imagines that this cluster of demography he thinks he has identified knows he exists, thinks he can help, or, frankly give a toss about any of this – what I am writing now included – is a sheer delusion.

Goodhart is definitely part of another world for me, as I had to look up what the 1st XI football and 1st XI cricket team even meant. But he is part of a world that is at the centre of power, it is ‘at home’. I am an oddity. A curveball. A skint working class man who reads the Financial Times. I am the insider-outsider he tries to claim for his side, except I am firmly against him. What Goodhart is really signalling, all the way through this piece, to the elites, is that the shift to the right is alright.

When Goodhart sides with the ‘somewheres’, those rooted in the landscape with strong ties to place, he is also siding with ethnocentrism in a country where the Visaless are transported from shady airport prisons, for instance the one that is part of Manchester Airport, to remote places away from social contact, in some cases Glasgow, where they are then deported back to the hell they escaped from. G4S will then present an inflated bill for their services to The State. I am describing something that recently happened, as told to me by a researcher.

Goodhart says he is trying to save liberalism from its own over-reach. But it is really an under-reach. Revealingly, Maurice Glasman is listed as a mentor in this conversion, along with Michael Lind, Eric Kaufmann and Jonathan Haidt. His big claim comes in quite abstracted macro form, perhaps the most dangerous ideological form there is. He says that mid 20th century modernism came with the caveat that cultural universalism was never guaranteed. ‘The moral equality of human beings’ doesn’t ‘mean we have the same obligations to all human beings’. Where this was written he never says. In a land that barely has a constitution, it is a big claim to make.

Glasman, if you know his rhetoric, is all over this piece, but the damaging work on class by Mike Savage is also part of this problem. The simplistic idea that mobiles and immobiles are the class structure comes out of his work. It is then cited as though it is a stable, neutral science and an easy set of binaries, it is not.

Goodhart claims that he is more on side with the somewheres by further enabling their ethnocentrism, by seeing it as a neutral and stable floor. What research has shown is that the post-industrial slump zones are the places where the term ‘English’ is preferred to the more inclusive ‘British’. A map of Britain that matches the maps of Tory capitalist revanchism that rooted the somewheres in their own emiseration for decades to the benefit of their enrinchment.

He describes this as post-liberal rather than centre right: He thinks he is centre-left.

They can’t touch it, what they are. This complex is perhaps the most telling thing here: The political spatial metaphors are moving around again, like walking goalposts. I have also heard, this month, a description of the Tory party as ‘leftwing’. My jaw hit the floor. But former liberals like Goodhart cannot call themselves right wing. It would spoil the finish of the wine they chose that week, with immaculate taste, with taste that disguised its own taste by making sure it chose unpretentiously.

Goodhart also describes Steve Bannon’s conversion, 9-11, alongside his own recent epiphany. The blindness and hypocrisy is staggering. On 9-11 2001 the American imperialist footsoldiers they created returned as monsters.

The end of postmodernity is implicated in all of this. The idea that we can turn away from relativism to Truth. It is easy to see how postmodernity and relativism would be rejected, because I feel the desire rising in me to reject it too.

I sense this desire most strongly through my everyday encounters. I became interested in an example of ‘killing with kindness’ this week, a response to a friend, someone nursing a grievance of some sort who communicated it with something unexpectedly pleasant, in order to make a point buried under the surface. Claiming it and aiming it is infinitely more ethical and moral than all of that sinister shadowplay. The surface of language always conceals as much as it reveals, but to use it like that is the agonistic equivalent of dumb insolence.

But the main point to make with this anecdote is that here is how postmodern relativism was never a panacea. It never solved anything, it only forced a deeper repression of the rawer human urges, and we have a massive return of the repressed in Trump.

A friend also pointed me to a website for the Realist Left this week. The ‘Realists’? A fundamental conservatism always asks us to ‘be realistic’, but we never know what’s being announced when the annunciation to ‘be realistic’ arrives. In the case of the Tories an end of public life in favour of a national stitch-up which acts on behalf of laissez faire ‘business’. But it isn’t ‘the real’. This is drawing on Lacan and overlaps with some of the things Zizek and then Mark Fisher said, but asking us to be realistic suggests there is a fundamental non-ideological stable floor to knowledge, a place we can all just go and stand in where everything will be better, like ‘common sense’, but there isn’t, it doesn’t exist.

The biggest problem isn’t the split between identity politics and something ‘more stable’. The problem is that a kind of neo-Kantianism is being suggested. Although to say they’ve reached neo-Kantianism is over-reaching too. But it’s positivist, this stuff, its nostalgia is only the surface problem, but the deeper one – more dangerous because better concealed – is that it ‘posits’ that there is something solid out there we can locate. The only philosophy and politics I can tolerate has to arrive with all its negativity showing – that there is nothing at the heart of the something, or the negative, the absolute negation of what is posited – this is coming from Hegel, modified in turn by Adorno, Lefebvre and Gillian Rose.

Perhaps more immediately graspable is that this stuff shares much with Trumpism in that it yearns for something stable over the relativism of postmodernity. Need I say more? The search for certainties and authenticity, if pushed to extreme, will lead to fascism. But it’s also extreme to paste this group with that slogan. A more correctly measured critique would just be to say that we are always asked to ‘be realistic’ when someone is axing jobs, livelihoods, breaking up families with the structural violence of capitalism.

But there is a fundamental schism within the logic of the believers that they seemingy cannot reach: Belief and The Truth are different things. The current geist says we now have ‘belief’ in place of facts produced by experts. The left think that they are horrified, but they aren’t, because they have, in Britain, their own belief in Corbyn, as the Americans have in Trump.

This is the ultimate end of modernism, the rejection of technocracy for pure ideology. This is very interesting, precisely because a minor cult of New Modernism has been rising for some time. We have Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism and the following popular books such as Guide to the New Ruins and the various Modernist Societies. But these good intentions arrive via a nostalgic rearward view, a turning away from the present into a past seen as more caring, something which actually characterises trauma. The Neomods project utopian flights forward and are very critical of Postmodernism. But the New Modernists often present us with a contemporary collage of Modernism, a positive, celebratory version, without its horror, madness and war.

All of these things are evangelistic and nostalgic at the same time. They cannot be described as Postmodern as they are characterised by the fundamentalist belief in an idea, but they do not have enough velocity to fully pull free from the condition of Postmodernity either. Modernism seems to contain the idea that it is exceptional. That it is exempt from nostalgia. It isn’t. Like St Paul on the road to Damascus, the Neomods have been struck by the revelation that Modernism has gone, but it is always with us. The New Moderns are Pauline. They wait, yet it has already arrived. It has been torn violently from us, that which we love. But wait, it is also all around us. This in fact shares with Derrida the wait for deferred meaning in ‘Différance’, something that sat very well with Postmodern discourses.

The Neomodernists return to belief in modernism right at its very nadir: There is no coincidence here.

The new leftwing turn in the Labour Party and Neomodernism says that belief is good and cynicism is bad. But if that belief is produced through blinkering, then is the belief in itself good? Blind loyalty is no longer loyalty, we’d have to use another term, give it another name.

Phil BC, who blogs as A Very Public Sociologist, wrote a great post on ‘naive cynicism’. It says that attacks on Owen Jones for being a Corbyn critic equalled Jones’ ambitions for the leader of the Labour Party and job of Prime Minister. Phil BC says that it isn’t necessarily the case. This is true, but it isn’t necessarily not the case either. The key point to make is that belief or cynicism are not reliable strategies, they are attestations. They are both equally potentially flawed and both equally potentially potential. Phil BCs comments urge belief over cynicism. I urge us not to lose our productive cynicism when the populist rightwing turn also involves a turn to blind belief.

It is belief that produces fanaticism. I am very cynical about Alberto Toscano’s book on Fanaticism, it seems to conceal its own belief in Marxist fanaticism as it lays out its cases. It conceals it in a way that reveals it, and that concealing tells you more about fanaticism than the information actually posited there: This is the dimension of the book that I believe.

This work is the product of a contemporary ‘Agambenism’ that finds glimmers of revolutionary potential in the most hopeless of places, and Agamben himself has more lately and far less likely found it in strict monastic regimes: You have to be looking pretty hard. Hardt and Negri are also products of this kind of fantastical X-Ray Reading. I would love to believe Negri’s prison book The Savage Anomaly but I don’t. That there is some wonderful Spinozan turn to be found in 1968.

Obscure leftwing texts are one thing, but most of the world’s population doesn’t spend its time there. We might then turn here to the perhaps more troubling phenomenon of the Armchair Strategists. Armchair Strategy largely equals Social Media, summa totalis. It is the recycling of superficial messages emerging in and being re-processed through social media. There is Armchair Strategy about What Is To Be Done in Syria, perhaps the most ludicrous posturing, in all but the most informed writers, Bob From Brockley I will offer as a special exception. But this continues into What The Labour Party Must Do and on and on. Social Media is roughly 50% provision and 50% hindrance. This is how D.W. Winnicott once explained institutions. But the Armchair Strategist believes that they have the solution, if only they could be in the chair.

The current leftwing critique of Orwell is part of this. That Orwell was somehow an establishment stooge all along and must now be refused in the search for a purer leftwing figure. This search for purity, truth and the correct position are all over the political dial. I believe in Orwell precisely because he was flawed, as all humans are flawed, and contradictory and fallible. Nobody is perfect. But I would go further and argue that faced with the situations and presented with the information that Orwell was, I would rat on the Stalinists too.

I will go much further and say that many of the hardest critics of Orwell are not magically immune from doing exactly the same thing, were they there now, without much of the historical constellation laid out for them, a map into the past from the present. Because what they don’t have is a map to the future. This is the big problem of Armchair Strategy and so it usually attacks moves made in the near or distant past as soon as they are seen to have not been quite the best decisions.

There is a temporality, then, to our relationship with belief and the truth. Our relationship to belief and the truth is slowly, imperceptibly shifting. The point of this article is to begin to track the cultural movements involved in that. What we see in all the examples I have given here is not postmodernism, but a turn to Neobelief.

When David Goodhart converts to the localised, when the Agambanites and Negriistas begin to scry hidden dimensions in texts, when the Amrchair Strategists reveal how obvious it is what needs to be done in Cairo. When the more zealous Modernists proclaim that mass, top down planning was great all along. They are all engaging in Neobelief.

The City of Blades

In the week the new Greater Manchester Mayor took office for the first time, I attended two events.

The first was the Manchester University annual JMCE lecture, which this year was given by constitutional lawyer Rodney Brazier. His theme was Brexit, Politics and Constitutional Law.

The second was organised by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Humanities in Public programme and was titled Manchester as Cosmopolis. It addressed global migration in a changing United Kingdom.

At both these events, things were said that Andy Burnham might bear in mind.

The first event set the wider context. Rodney Brazier went right back to 1688/9 and the birth of the UK Parliament. From here, he suggests, after Brexit, treaties cannot overwrite parliamentary sovereignty. We might return to Hegel and a philosophy that worships The State and values Right over other forms of statecraft.

This was roughly the case until 1971-72, when the UK agreed to ‘an enlargement of sovereignties’ in compact with Europe ‘in the general interest’. Yet Brazier explains that it took 20 years for a legal dispute to arise because of this expansion of sovereignty, over fish, in 1991.

The details are not exactly racy, but the Merchant Shipping Act of 1988 was dropped, as it conflicted with EU law. From here, the matter was taken up by the tabloids, with performed fury, a precursor to the contemporary moment: ‘Foreign courts’, ‘meddling’, rampant British Nationalism.

Yet Parliamentary sovereignty was part of the compact with the EU, in 1991. It wasn’t separate. The EU was meshed with expanded, plural UK sovereignty. Where they were separated out by the tabloids and far right is where the ideology lies: The supposed great bonfire of British values did not happen for 20 years, and when it did, it was largely created by the British tabloids. Nobody should be surprised that UKIP began here, in 1991.

Brazier explains that between 1991 and 2016 we experienced a rise of discourse around ‘The European Project’ that was treated with derision by the rightwing tabloids. These tensions heated steadily until Cameron gave the spark of a vote. By this point, the erosion of trust rooted in the banking crisis of 2008 and the 2009 expenses scandal was dangerous: Through austerity ‘we’ pay for ‘them’, the bankers, MPs, Euro MPs, ‘The European Project’.

The tabloids had paraded examples on relentless drip feed for over two decades that added up, in the minds of tabloid readers, to ‘a picture’. Freedom of movement was blamed, rather than the lack of state competence. ‘Experts’ were kicked and the giant expert kicking conga goes on.

After Article 50, the ‘great repeal act’ means that EU legislation will remain enshrined in UK law until it is overturned. At this point, with modifications, we will be back to the situation of 1688-1972.

As Article 50 is triggered, we begin a long return to a narrowed field of sovereignty that is unlikely to reign in the banks. Yet it is capitalism that has left us with the seemingly contradictory result of a deep cynicism of government, plus a more singular and possibly heavier sovereignty.

Here again we might return to 1689, then later Hegel and a philosophy that worships The State and values Right over Treaty. The dangers should be clear: The Macron versus le Pen campaign involved a rejection of traditional parties in France.

Similarly, Trump has no political experience and is not part of the political dynasties. Mr Burnham may have won 63% of the vote, but the turnout was just under 29%. This said, every move our new mayor makes is a move in a paranoid, eye-filled landscape of sheer cynicism. I don’t envy him. I wish him luck.

At the second event, Manchester as Cosmopolis, former Manchester Evening News correspondent Andy Spinoza explained that the Northern Powerhouse ‘is a proposal, not a plan.’

The Northern Powerhouse started as a transport project, as Manchester underperforms in relation to London and the Southeast. The city cluster of Manchester-Leeds-Sheffield are seen as close, yet apart, and the transport solution, including HS2 – although Burnham is rightly sceptical about it – is meant to partly deal with the problem.

But the idea that getting to Leeds from Manchester faster, or vice versa, might deal with stagnating wages, exploitation and short-termism, is obviously mad, a hangover of the Blairism that Burnham is seen as a remnant of. The magical connect-up is as mythical as the mystic trickle-down, and Andy Spinoza owns a PR company called Spin Media.

Spinoza explains Burnham’s role as ‘soft power’, what an academic might call ‘pouissance‘, the power of conviction, rather than the ‘hard power’ of ‘pouvoir‘, the can do and will do. He has some hard power, Burnham, a new say over health, social care and other services. Burnham thinks too many luxury apartments are being built, and he is setting up shop as the mayor of social justice, but he is also perceived as a Blairite.

Our new mayor may well be viewed as Janus right now, double-masked and characterised by arrivals and exits, but when he finally leaves, history will fix his face forever.

The great Saskia Sassen then arrived at the Cosmopolis event, for the keynote speech, and suddenly there were many more things on the table that Burnham should consider.

Sassen began by describing some global cities of the north, with their vast, visible luxury zones. These zones are what Sassen calls ‘de-urbanisation’, cities as monocultures for the wealthy. Manhattan was given as an example, half full and for the rich. ‘A monster’ that crawls in and eats neighbourhoods from within. London’s Docklands is another example, as is Salford Quays, although much more modestly so.

Sassen gave us the big picture of how global cities came to be what they are: From World War Two to the 1970s, ‘the corporate’ was in-house, vertical, hierarchical, with upward movement inside. This came to a radical end when they went global. The old vertical model was mirrored in the buildings, for instance The Seagram Building, completed in 1958.

But we cannot read what is going on through the buildings any more. This is not a comment on postmodern architecture: The knowledge is now the infrastructure; not the buildings. Apparently Goldman Sachs has 100 physicists developing ‘intermediary instruments’. If we want to see the structures of corporate knowledge, I thought, we might perhaps find a way to look at their notebooks.

There is the more well known phenomena of ‘offshoring’, but Sassen explains how the corporation shifted its strategies of sourcing knowledge, as well as raw materials and production, drawing what it needs from multiple wells, a culture that clusters in global cities.

This, like vertical upward movement until the 1970s ‘is not an innocent process’. Sassen says 100 leading intelligence companies have branches in 600 cities. What then, is Manchester’s knowledge specialty? And to what other global cities is it connected? Andy Burnham is for ‘the digital economy’, but really, what is this, The Sharp Project? It is still so very vague.

Sassen understands the potential riches clearly: Google and Facebook are virtually risk-free enterprises, unlike the motor industry, which recently had cars withdrawn again with corresponding losses.

So, if they can pull it off, great, scrolling pound signs, but there are huge pitfalls and traps here. To explain these Sassen describes how sub-prime had ‘nothing to do with a mortgage’. It was a financial instrument that had ‘dressed itself in the clothing of housing’. ‘Houses’ had become material assets, and no coincidence that a lot of investment is now geared up to asset stripping.

The crippling irony is that sub-prime was a move to an asset-backed financial product after the simulacra of derivatives markets. After 2008, after all of this collapsed, we were given a series of absurd show trials and a set of phony recalibrations of risk and compliance legislation. Here again, Sassen moves around her subject a little more tangentially, explaining how we have ‘International Standards’, ISO, but the use of those quality guaranteed products is not enquired after, nor, I might add, are the supply chains or the exploitation of labour required to produce their ‘standards’.

Her key point here is that when ‘the global’ sets in, stability rots off the core: Manchester is global and is preparing to shift up a level of velocity in the global game. That is why the city is a building site, its circuits are being re-wired. But these circuits, to use a crass metaphor, are not being PAT tested before they run.

Sassen explains how the credit default swap market nearly doubled each year from 2001 through to its titanic crash in 2007. She explains how debt in households in Eastern Europe is largely owned by German, Austrian and Swiss banks.

The parallel phenomenon is hollowed-out urban space. For instance, Giles Fraser recently explained in the Guardian how his East London parish is being emptied by overseas capitalist investment.

And a man of the cloth should be concerned: Sassen tells us that this business is ‘extractive’; but the injections of capital themselves, the buying of the properties, are also a potential cause for concern, as dirty money launders through property.

Sassen shows a list of the acquisitions of existing properties by national and foreign investment. London is right up there with a jaw-dropping 40.5%. Manchester is lower down the list, at No.23 globally, hovering by Miami, but this is astonishing in itself.

Sassen shows a map of the iconic buildings in London, owned by one Chinese investor. To ‘a mayor’, she says, watch what happens to the physical assets. You need to know how to handle them, ‘or it will eat you up’. Look at what is happening in London, she says, public servants cannot afford to live there. Her message is stark.

Earlier, Andy Spinoza assumed that Blair’s ambition to get 50% of young people into universities, rather than providing job-focused education, is a further obstacle to the Northern Powerhouse ‘proposal’. But those in real hard power government such as Boris Johnson, did they do a bricklaying course? No. Are we then to conclude that proles are needed for the NPH pump-house? I guess so.

Spinoza describes people ‘getting on their own two feet’, and how there is currently too much bureaucracy for business startups. More laissez faire is classic Tory rhetoric. But there is an unspoken industrial romanticism under all of this too, that ‘up north’ we roll our sleeves up and do dirty jobs.

Under this is a yearning for Empire, it is latent in any ‘Make Us Great Again’ rhetoric. It lies under Trump’s rhetoric, drawing on a yearning for the days of the USA as a world power in full stride, and it is latent in this kind of city pride chest-beating.

When placed next to Sassen’s analysis, this kind of chest-beating begins to glow in dangerous colours. During Sassen’s talk, a line from Spinoza that stuck in my head returned: Apparently ‘we’ are to show that we can be trusted by ‘London’, by Parliament and The City, that we can be responsible with these new powers.

I began to wonder about the provenance of this vision of a Parliamentary ‘big other’ that was being raised by Spinoza. Where else has this notion been raised? What is its history?

So, during questions I asked Spinoza if this perceived need to compete with the city of London and the Southeast could be found in policy. ‘No’, he said, the idea that Manchester needs to prove its manly credentials were taken from a Manchester Evening News interview with Andy Burnham. Manchester’s masculine leadership, plus ça change, at the same time as we’re being told everything is changing.

This swagger about Manchester competing with the southeast is not in policy. They are cultural assumptions, to be found, as Sassen explains it, at the fuzzy edges of knowledge paradigms. They are to be challenged.

Therefore, in whose name is this great Manchester race being declared? I take Sassen’s ‘message to a mayor’ as for Burnham, and if it wasn’t intended as one, I wish to turn it around and send it his way myself: When people start talking of ‘competition between cities’, Sassen explained, ‘the only winners of that line are the corporations’. Sassen is completely sceptical of the notion of competition, ‘cities compete far less than leading corporate actors lead us to think’, she explains.

Sassen warns that the cities in the global game are in trouble, as they risk being ‘kidnapped’ by global finance, and Manchester is in that top 100. This means overseas investment in property. Buildings and streets that appear public are often owned by corporations. For instance Potsdamer Platz appears public, but is private, as is much of Docklands London. Here again we can turn to Salford Quays and the massive public-private fudge of the BBC and the offshore wealth of Peel Holdings and its shell operations.

Sassen tells us that ‘the law of urban land is often very old law’, but that the more creative lawyers are now creeping into public spaces. But they also creep vertically, upwards and downwards, for this is the new revanchist frontier. Career progress no longer means a slow journey from the Post Room to the Board of Directors. But physical expansion globally is going vertical, unless Burnham follows through on his thoughts about building on the green belt. Sassen explains how these compacts of legal advice, global speculation, investment and statecraft are ‘colonising the future’ of cities to ‘deal with the current electoral cycle.’

This involves the same infinite deferral of judgement that led to 2008, a deferral of judgement that carried on after 2008 and continues to hang over us. It doesn’t just hover abstractly over some mystical place called ‘the global’ that we need not worry about, it hangs over Manchester, right now, in the form of roving giant blades.

It is Peel eyeing up more infrastructure and opportunity. It is Deloitte U.S. priming the ground for overseas investment in Manchester via cultural journalism that blurs into a tourist guide. It is the Chinese consortium CMC at Manchester City football ground.

Sassen explained that although she loves the phrase, she doesn’t ask about the ‘right to the city’, now isn’t the time, but we must ask ‘who owns the city?’

Of course, she also asked us to find what the specialised difference of a city is. What then, Mr Burnham, is Manchester’s specialised difference on the global stage? But more importantly, who owns it?

There are two vectors here, travelling in opposite directions, through the same city, and re-shaping it as they go. There is the morphing of the UK constitution into something far more monosyllabic, and the opposite vector of a complexifying and ever-more predatory capitalism that The State cannot and will not reign in.

A concluding question might be ‘what are you going to do about all of this in the name of “the people” you so ardently profess?’ And ‘if your powers are too limited, who is going to do something about it?’

But that would be a naive question, and a naive demand to make. But I cannot imagine that these two vectors are going to neatly harmonise. The criticisms of ‘the global’ of economics and the current populist rightwing cultural geist are unlikely to be neatly separated either.

– A different version of this later appeared on Open Democracy UK.  

Red Inkies

I have a tradition of writing for the Red Inkies. I am quite prolific, but much of my writing is a sort of practical thinking. It also remains on my hard drives. But one overflow mechanism has been the more journalistic pieces I have written over the last ten years.

I really like W.E. Du Bois’ strategy of publishing anywhere. He published in racist newspapers, for instance. I am far from ideologically aligned with some of the Red Inkies I have submitted to – to say the least – but getting in there means offering readers who might not otherwise look a different sort of perspective. I get slightly irritated by publishing resumés that list a flawless set of totally right-on titles. I’m equally suspicious of record collections without at least two or three guilty pleasures hidden in them.

There is a wider, more serious point to make here, which is that ethically, by publishing in the Guardian or New Statesman, nothing is ‘solved’, quite the opposite. I have long argued that feminists should publish in Woman’s Own and Marxists in the Financial Times, and although this sometimes happens, it isn’t as widespread a practice as it should be. Could an anti-racism campaigner get published in an EDL publication? Those kinds of ambitions, surely, should be part of any leftwing agenda.

I have a similar take on ethics in relation to social research, that will doubtless make peope feel uncomfortable when I publish the writing. But the broader point I want to make is that we need to get out of our own echo chambers, out of our comfortable, neutered, academic diplomatic immunity, and be just a little bit more risky. History, I think, demands this.

So, here is a piece from Solidarity on the London Olympic Games opening ceremony, called A Cloud Of 21st Century Consciousness. It uses Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kötting’s Swandown as a lens through which we might view the eventual Olympic event.

Here also are some pieces for New Worker, Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape – sorry Bill – and Adventures in European Hyper-Landscapes, an exploration of class and gender through Eurovision.

More recent pieces have been on Afzal Amin, which I titled Life in the Hall of Mirrors, and an essay on the bizarre, desperate re-burial of despotic King Richard, which I called Richard III, or How To Be an Anthopologist in Your Own Country. I’m not going to upload all of my Red Inky pieces here, just the ones that are accounts of Adventures In Political Landscapes.