Wednesday, September 04, 2013

A new template and a return to blogging. I hope to be adding to this new, rather basic design. In the meantime, the Grill is open for business once more.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Steve Jobs - Silicon saints and the credulity of philosophers

Death often brings out the mawkish, particularly when it comes to public figures. Unless the recently deceased is a war criminal, sexual predator or tabloid columnist people are generally willing to forgive the celebrity / politician / sportsman his or her foibles and shortcomings and instead, bathe them in the rosy light of fond remembrance. This is an entirely natural response and one can usually forgive the hyperbole that accompanies the celebration of this or that c-lister’s life.

One could argue that it is even more understandable when individuals have made a genuine impact on the world and their achievements have been remarkable. Peacemakers, scientists, novelists, artists, directors, and inventors – we quite rightly take note of such individuals, although usually the tributes are properly leavened with an acknowledgement of failings.

But sometimes, critical faculties evaporate into the ether along with any sense of proportion. Case in point: Apple founder and innovator, Steve Jobs.

The beatification of Steve Jobs is now well underway. Already, Jobs is shaping up as a secular saint for Silicon Valley, and one can assume that in the minds of the developer and venture capital community he is already installed alongside the father, von Neumann, and the holy mother, Ayn Rand. Certainly, if the fervour of the true believers is any measure, laying their votive offerings at shrines - Apple likes to call them stores – across the world, then it would be foolish not to expect an announcement from the Vatican (or Cupertino) any day soon.

But grief often robs us of our critical faculties so perhaps we shouldn’t be to hard on commentators like Julian Baggini…. But there again perhaps, we should.

Baggini was just one of the hagiographers paying gushing tribute to Jobs last week. Indeed, the Sundays are full of it as well. Baggini managed in his article to push the whole bathetic spectacle to new levels of silliness. Why? Because Jobs did not simply change the way we view technology, "the biggest change to the way both its critics and cheerleaders think about capitalism."

The claims regarding Jobs' impact on design, computing and the content industries are overstated but not entirely without foundation. One argument against this view is the classic Marxist criticism that attributing achievements to a single individual ignores the collective nature of industrial creation. Like the 'great man' theory of history, the lone genius model of industrial innovation is an ideological construct that obscures its true nature and rarely stands up to interrogation. A number of bloggers and facebook posts link to Brecht's Questions From a Worker Who Reads (always worth revisiting).

There is much in this this view. Jobs would also, I think, have been one of the first to concede that he was just one innovator amongst many at Apple. If Jobs had a talent it was perhaps more providing the integrating vision and acting as a talent spotter. Much has been said of his design talent but surely that lies with chief designer Jonathan Ive and his international team, as much as any other. It is also worth saying that Jobs (and Apple) didn't always lead the way but they have been particularly good at spotting where the pioneering technologies and products fall short. There were lots of music devices and download sites around before the iPod and iTunes, but none of them brought everything together in one offer and ensured that all the parties - most importantly the device manufacturer and the content providers - worked together.

There is another criticism of Apple. This highlights Apple's questionable practices (to say the least) in outsourcing production to Chinese companies like Foxconn, the exploitation of overseas workers, and focuses upon the suicides and attempted suicides in these workplaces. Jobs own statement regarding the Chinese plants seemed at best naive: ""You go in this place, and it's a factory but, my gosh, they've got restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals and swimming pools," Jobs said. "For a factory, it's pretty nice." Such purblind boosterism is hardly atypical of Western companies outsourcing in China.

Do such factors mean that Jobs' career (and life) is unworthy of comment? I think not. It is hard not to feel queasy at all the talk of the John Lennon of tech but clearly there is something here worth examining.

Baggini's arguments are another thing. Firstly is his suggestion that Apple was different because it anticipated what customers might want and pursued excellence in design and performance. It may seem neat to position Apple as poster-child for post-Fordist, "any colour you want as long as it's black (or in the PC-industry, beige)" but capitalism has always been driven by innovation in its products, processes and practices. Modern capitalism in, "constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. ....Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones." That's not Design Week or the Harvard Business Review, in the 1990s or 2000s, it's Marx in 1848.

His arguments over brands are more simpleminded yet. Baggini's seems to have bought into the mantras of marketing theorists (and the No Logo counterargument) in fairly uncritical fashion. The former have long tended to form the (the brand) over content (the product) and too often collapse the latter into the former. No sensible observers (especially on the left) bought into this guff and certainly a rejection of brand-fetishism doesn't make one oblivious to the qualities of well-made, well-designed products.

Baggini is not daft enough to ignore the critique of the individualist theory of history. But only the vulgar form of this approach was so crude so as to ignore the importance of the individual. Indeed, Trotsky engaged with this issue directly, most notably in his History of the Russian Revolution. In short, Baggini is attacking a straw man.

And so he is too when he says that "Jobs is actually exhibit A in any case against the idea that the market is maximally efficient and can be left to take care of things by itself. A slap in the face to free-market fundamentalists, but hardly comfort to anti-capitalists either. Jobs doesn't show that capitalism is a flawed system, only that it is not perfectly self-regulating."

And ......? This is simply banal. Capitalism has never been perfectly self-regulating, nor does any sensible Marxist argue that capitalism is unable to produce compelling, commercially successful products or, for that matter, create new needs and wants.

Steven Jobs may have made a not-insignificant contribution to redesigning and creating a great many things. Capitalism wasn't one of them.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Storming Heaven: The Paris Commune

My first piece for Counterfire on the 140th anniversary of the fall of the Commune was published this weekend. It can be found here. The Commune was the world's first experiment in workers' self-government. For a few short weeks the workers of Paris had given shape to a new kind of socialist politics from below.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Gramsci and Us

Gramsci and Us was the title of Thursday's lecture by Pete Thomas of Brunel at a London Counterfire meeting. Thomas is author of The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism and provided an springboard for what turned out to be a wide-ranging discussion of the Italian Marxist's contribution to the theory and practice of the revolutionary left.

Thomas did not set out to provide a 'Beginner's Guide' to Gramsci, rather a perspective on his work and an engagement with certain versions of Gramsci that have been promulgated by academia. His title, Gramsci and Us comes as a sly dig at at Stuart Hall's 1987 paper of the same name which discussed how Marxists (by which Hall meant those members of Communist Party of Great Britain gathered around Marxism Today) should move beyond Gramsci to a more 'relevant' politics.

As the head of Birmingham University's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies Hall had been responsible for importing Gramsci into cultural theory and he had become one of the chief exponents of 'cultural Marxism'. Focusing primarily on The Prison Notebooks Hall focused on what Gramsci could tell us about the ideological institutions and the 'common sense' of modern capitalism. In understanding Gramsci's notion of hegemony, Hall concentrated upon culture rather than the questions of political leadership that sits at the centre of Gramsci's work.

Thomas is interested in a different Gramsci, a Gramsci whose ideas are part of a tradition shared with Lenin and the Bolshevik tradition and is tied to revolutionary politics. The French Marxist, Louis Althusser pointed to what he saw as an 'epistemological break' in Marx's thought, between the young Marx of the German Ideology and the mature, scientific Marx of Capital. Similarly, Hall focuses on The Prison Notebooks at the expense of the Gramsci who led and theorised about the Factory Council movement of the Biennio Rosso (Two Red Years) of 1919 and 1920.

Hegemony, for Thomas, means leadership - the mobilising of the worker's movement around a programme of economic struggle and transformation. Thomas's Gramsci is concerned with building united fronts, the science and art of uniting sections of the working class and other exploited classes in the service of human liberation. For academics and the eurocommunist theorists such ideas smack of voluntarism and outdated modes of political engagement. I think Thomas is right to reject such a view. Both approaches became a dead end and ultimately, recipes for inertia.

I will not summarise all of Thomas's arguments. A video of the meeting can be found here so readers can judge for themselves. My thoughts are also somewhat provisional as I am keen to read Thomas's book and explore his ideas in greater detail.

Just a few preliminary thoughts then. Broadly, socialists in the revolutionary tradition will find little to disagree with in Thomas's corrective. A few minor reservations. Firstly, the question of what leadership actually means. For me, Gramsci's strength is the hegemony goes beyond leadership in a programmatic and agitational sense but includes the dissemination of counter-hegemonic ideas through a variety of workers' institutions from trade unions and parties to educational associations and perhaps in modern terms, radical think tanks like the New Economics Foundation. In revolutionary periods such institutions - most notably workers councils - form the nucleus of dual power and the springboard for revolution.

Gramsci has a lot to tell us about how capitalism reproduces itself and defends itself against revolutionary incursions. His discussion of the 'war of position' and the nature of civil society provides valuable insights for those seeking to develop revolutionary movements in advanced capitalist societies and parliamentary democracies.

This does not discount the importance of leadership. In Italy in the post-war period the PCI, the Italian Communist Party, developed a whole range of counter-hegemonic institutions. Many of these were created from below. The tragedy is that the PCI lacked the leadership capable of building a genuinely transformative movement. The Stalinism of Togliatti gave way to the historic compromise with Christian Democracy and the turn towards reformism. The leadership was not merely inept, it blocked the route to revolution.

The culturalist appropriation of Gramsci was not entirely fruitless. Hall has produced important work, most significantly his book from the Seventies, Policing the Crisis which explored racist ideology, panics around mugging and the role of the state during a time of crisis. In the end, however, the work of Hall, Jacques and others at Marxism today ended in vapid discussions of style and almost fawning analyses of Thatcherism which produced a sterile politics. In the case of academics like Laclau and Mouffe (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy) it ended in an abandonment of almost all the key concepts of Marxism in favour of a woolly project of 'radical democracy.'

I look forward to reading Thomas's book and will come back with a more considered view. In the meantime, watch the video of the lecture. It's well worth it.

Radical Walthamstow

Most British socialists will know of Walthamstow's most famous radical, William Morris and a number of us will have read E P Thompson's biography. But few of us know about the radical figures that Morris's work inspired in the borough where he was born. Roger Huddle does.

Roger, a local activist and poet, gave a fascinating talk last night at Walthamstow's Central Library. After painting a vivid and evocative picture of the birth of the borough and its evolution from five small hamlets, Roger wove a number of strands together in a compelling story that covered the rise of chartism, the growth of the early Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, the role of groups like the Clarions in winning working people to socialist ideas and event the role of the socialist Sunday schools which by the end of the 19th century were attended by more than a hundred young people every Sunday and who observed the socialist ten commandments, the tenth of which looked forward, "to the day when all men and women will be free citizens of one community, and live together as equals in peace and righteousness."

Roger usually gives his overview of local radical history as a walk around the borough, taking in many of the buildings and sites where the pioneering figures he introduced worked and agitated. He apologised for the fragmentary nature of his narrative. No need, it was a clear and engaging discussion of the work of people whose example we could do worse than emulate today.

In describing the radical history of Walthamstow Huddle says he wants to name and give tribute to many of those working people - labourers, artisans, trade unionists, activists - who the history books so often ignore.

Only this week the Post Office issued a set of commemorative stamps celebrating William Morris. Many like our current chancellor of the exchequer, scion of a family of wallpaper manufacturers, think that William Morris is a man who made pretty patterns for the decorating the homes of the wealthy. This lecture told the real story of those who had designs not for homes but for the liberation of humankind. Next time you see that Roger is giving one of his talks or walks go. I'll see you there.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sweezy versus Schumpeter - knock down, drag out

If the narcissist leaders of Silicon Valley have Ayn Rand, the intellectual lodestone of its academic acolytes has been the work of Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter's notion of 'creative destruction' and his focus on the innovator and the entrepreneur as the motor of capitalism has found its way into the work of futurists and theorists of technology, hailing from both left and right.

This fascinating article by John Bellamy Foster tells the story of the 1946 Harvard debate between Schumpeter and Paul Sweezy over the nature of capitalist development. The article features a discussion of a note, long thought mythical, of the issues discussed in the debate.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Counterforum - Discussing the Politics of Resistance

The shape of the New Left, new forms of resistance to cuts and austerity, and the need for a world built around need, not profit: these were just some of the themes at last weekend’s Counterforum conference.

In the year since its creation, Counterfire, the organiser of the event, has had impact that belies its newness and - relatively - small size. It has been a prime mover behind the Coalition of Resistance, produces a lively and stimulating website, and its members have been involved in struggles from the student protests to the Arab revolutions. It has also more than doubled its number of members.

Counterfire’s roots lie in the Socialist Workers Party. It might be thought, therefore, that Counterforum would have the feel of a streamlined Marxism festival and the organisation would create the impression of an SWP 2.0.

It was refreshing to find that this was not the case. This is not intended to be a sideswipe at the SWP. There is enough SWP bashing on the left and I do not propose to add to it. The SWP has a distinguished past and plays an important and valuable role.

The refreshing and inspiring quality of the day’s discussions lay in the willingness of participants to recognise the extent of the challenges facing the Marxist left if it is to rise to the challenges before it. Importantly, the debates recognised that the revolutionary left needs to change if it is to succeed in engaging with and ultimately lead the fight against neoliberalism and for socialism.

One of the strengths of Counterforum was its willingness to engage with other sections of the left and to make a serious attempt to enter into a dialogue with those from other traditions. Socialist Resistance had a stand at the event and speakers from the floor included members of Workers Power and Permanent Revolution, and one of the key speakers, Dot Gibson, was a longstanding member of the Workers Revolutionary Party.

There is a tendency on the left for dialogues to be those of the deaf. For once this was not the case. Paradoxically, the heavy-handed chairing and facilitating habits of left organisations – the use of speaker slip processes, verbally kneecapping those from other tendencies - tend to be shaped by a certain lacking of self-confidence on the part of organisations. This too was pleasantly absent (and long may it be so).

Members of the SWP selling papers outside were not allowed in to the event. Was this a mistake? At this stage I think not. Inclusion would have, I think, distorted the discussion and turned it into an autopsy of the split away from the SWP. Feelings are, I suspect, raw on both sides but more importantly, given the fact that many participants (including myself) come from other traditions, it would have been a distraction.

One of the best contributions of the day came from Chris Bambery, now a leading member of the International Socialist Group in Scotland and, until recently, organiser for Right to Work.

Bambery argued that the new groups on the left need to engage in positive ‘critical reflection’ and that includes going beyond what he referred to as a reliance upon syndicalist politics and ‘sterile party building.’

Like others in the audience he recognised that there was a desire for the left to move beyond sectarianism. It was good, he said, that not everyone in the new organisations came from an SWP background (indeed, the majority in Counterfire do not). Organisations like Counterfire and the ISG should recognise that not every good idea comes from their own organisations and socialists need to find new ways of getting to work with and getting to know others on the left. “It’s not enough to proclaim ourselves the revolutionary party and think that at some point the scales will just fall from people’s eyes and they will follow us,’ he said.

Counterfire, in my view, is correct at this point in time in stressing the primacy of politics and of the mass movements. This does not dismiss the importance of the unions but it does mean having a sober and honest appraisal of where the union movement is and the level of confidence that currently exists.

The left, Bambery continued, needs to address a number of key issues. This includes the shape and character of the working class today. I think he is right. The working class is not the same as it was in 1871, 1917, 1945 or 1968. In many respects it is larger (certainly at an international level). As another speaker pointed out, the working class of Indonesia is today is larger than it was globally in Marx’s day.

Thanks to the shift of the UK economy away from manufacturing and towards financial and other services the modern working class in the UK and US is very different. In thinking about our constituency, Bambery argued, we need to think not just of industrial workers but those in the casualised and precarious sectors, students (who often make ends meet by working in the same sort of jobs) call centre workers, pensioners and the unemployed.

Perhaps more controversially, Bambery also argued for a critical discussion of the Leninist inheritance.

I think he is right. This does not mean a wholesale rejection of Leninism (or others from the revolutionary Marxist tradition) but it does mean recognising that we are in very different conditions and times and that it is illusory to think that 1968 will come round again, and that history will repeat itself in the same way.

Such views were echoed from the floor. James Meadway of Counterfire and the New Economics Foundation said: “We need to have a little humility sometimes and recognise that other people have good ideas about the world too.”

To some ears this may sound a little too ‘touchy-feely’ and a prescription for endless talking shops.

I think this would be the wrong conclusion draw. First and foremost, the overwhelming focus of the day was the importance of connecting up with national and international struggles. But without addressing how to effectively work with others and broaden out the movement Counterfire would be condemning itself to repeating the same mistakes the sectarian left has made time and time again and I do not think that is its aim.

It has made great progress to date and this has been by being more open and trusting its members to create initiatives and run with them.

Some in the discussion stressed the importance of creating a broad based, inclusive party bringing together the Marxist left, in the UK and internationally.

That has to be the long-term goal but small steps first. Finding a way of building a culture of collaboration would be a huge step forward and is something that has been missing for too long. Sectarianism demoralises activists and alienates potential supporters and we have to move beyond it.

In discussions about the anti-cuts movement, the Arab spring, pensioners’ struggles and the fight against Islamophobia the Counterfire forum showed some of the practical ways in which it can be done.

Counterfire has the potential to create an umbrella for Marxists who may have slightly different perspectives on key issues or aspects of theory but can combine in united action. Such a worthy aim deserves a chance and that’s why after much consideration, I’ve decided to join Counterfire.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Big Mistake Hugo

So Hugo Chavez has come out against attacks on Libya's independence, seeing the hand of imperialism in the current uprising. This is not quite the same as giving wholehearted support to Gaddafi and does not go as far as the increasingly erratic, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, but it is disappointing to say the least and goes against the interests that he has fought for over the years, namely those of struggling against economic and political oppression.

Chavez has never been without his flaws. Although he has flirted with elements of Trotskyist thinking at times and has presided over a democratic revolution in his own country, he is not without an authoritarian streak and his closeness to Castro has helped form a politics that gives undue weight to the role of political elites. Realpolitik and the dangerous principle of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend,' has led him towards some poor choices of friend.

To be accurate, Venezuela has said that it repudiates the violence and goes on to say that "Conditions are being created to justify an invasion of Libya, and the central objective of that invasion... is to take away Libya's oil."

It may be true that Western governments are keen to see the removal of an irksome regime and its replacement by a friendly client in the region. The privatisation of Libya's oil wealth will be on the agenda of many and some on the left are disturbed that the rebels are using Libya's old monarchist flag. Too much is being read into the latter, I think and the fundamental point is surely, no socialist can support a regime that oppresses and slaughters its own people in the way that Gadaffi and his thugs have been doing in recent days (and have been doing for more than 40 years).

The international left can have (and largely doesn't) have any truck with a quasi-Stalinist model that places the interests of the state above the people. Socialism is democratic or it is nothing.

Chavez, a man that knows what it is likely to face the undemocratic forces of a state machine, backed by a vicious power elite, should know this more than many. And to his credit he has extended power to working people in Bolivia and instituted programmes that have massively improved living standards and educational achievement. But the short-sighted embrace of a tyrant is a significant blot on a good record. Let's hope Hugo thinks again.