From clone towns to ghost towns?

A dozen years or so ago, people were concerned that British towns were looking the same. The anxiety was that there was too little differentiation between retail offers. A High Street would contain the usual suspects and many shoppers would crave diversity. Competition between places was not leading to distinctive spaces and boredom was an issue.

While the Great Recession changed the worries of many citizens, the idea of clone towns survived for a while. Even as austerity reduced consumption, many people must have thought that ‘business as usual’ would be restored in time. Analysts may have noted the growing tendency to shop online, but many shoppers thought that it would be possible to continue buying stuff in the old way.

There was a political push to revitalise towns, but there was not enough imagination. The stress on creating experiences could not deliver regeneration across the board. Although some places have suffered more than others, the overall pattern is bleak. Shops are boarded up. Bookmakers, fast-food joints and charity stores are enduring, but many towns are not mounting a sustainable comeback.

It is premature to say precisely what should be done. Green towns are worth considering. Heritage may sometimes be used to positive effect. But at least we need not fear clone towns any more. More serious issues demand our consideration. Places with poor levels of footfall on sunny days will not be brought to life by the odd event.

Local government must bring ideas forward. For such plans to be effective, it is essential that the squeeze on the finance of local authorities is abandoned. Central government should increase income tax and use the resources to give more discretion to those involved in the production of place.


Why is Paul Mason attacking Louis Althusser?

“In the early 1960s the pro-Kremlin French sociologist Louis Althusser “solved” the problem of the Paris Manuscripts by declaring them to be un-Marxist.”

Paul Mason.

It is often thought that the media star and writer Paul Mason is squarely on the left of British politics. He has not been a savage critic of Jeremy Corbyn, and this means that he is often perceived as being a benign commentator on political and economic matters. Nevertheless, he occasionally says or does something which makes you think he is not to be trusted. His intemperate and inaccurate attack on the dead philosopher Louis Althusser is a case in point.

Althusser is known for his conceptual innovations and for his ability to learn from different disciplines. He was not a simple Stalinist, and it is unfair to his subtle thought to depict him as pro-Kremlin. Althusser was born in Algeria, but putting him in the French category is not necessarily inaccurate- although it should be remembered that the English historian E.P. Thompson gave the Frenchman a hard time back in the day.  Nationalism may have reared its head there, although Thompson had the sense not to produce a philosophical model of his own.

Mason continues his own assault strangely, by calling the philosopher a sociologist. This could be a typo, but it may be that Mason thinks that philosophers have a status which sociologists lack. Althusser was a creative philosopher and his contributions to thought should be discussed on that basis.

Ostensibly, Mason is attacking Althusser because the latter valued the late work of Marx more than Marx’s early musings. For Althusser, there was an ‘epistemological break’ between the two sections of theory. However, he was the subject of withering criticism on this point by John Lewis many decades ago. And Althusser conceded that his thinking had pushed ahead too far:

“I was not attentive enough to the fact which John Lewis points out, that is, to the fact of the continuing presence of the said philosophical categories after the “epistemological break”.” 
Nowhere does Mason mention that Althusser took full ownership of this deviation. The original error is only of interest to Marxist philosophers. So why does Mason want people to dismiss Althusser and focus on the minor works of Marx? There are two possible explanations. One of these is the theory that Mason does not want workers to find things out by themselves. If they read Althusser they may take a dim view of the mass media and the role that Mason plays within its reactionary systems. The other is the hope that Mason really believes in the Hegelian output of the young Marx.
It would be nice to think that Mason is an idealist, a man who wants to share beautiful thoughts about fighting the alienation of labour. However, Mason could do this without traducing a dead philosopher. Nor can one help wondering if Mason has an intellectual inferiority complex. His book sales may be great, but he is unlikely to be mentioned by the cognoscenti in the same breath as Althusser. Perhaps Mason should confine his polemics to his equals.

The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende

Books  can be understood as relatives of other books. I would never have read The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende if I had not experienced One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Magical realism and big families must have made an impact on my imagination way back when. Hence I picked up a memoir by Allende and found that real family sagas can be almost as dramatic as fictional ones.

Unfortunately, this memoir contains quite a lot of misery. Even when families have money they have their disappointments. Suffering comes in many forms. Some pain is haunting, occasioned by people passing away far too soon. Other anxiety is ephemeral, such as concern for fading personal appearance.

Much of this text is set in California. Allende is interested in politics and is broadly progressive in orientation. Certainly, part of the lengthy narrative is tormented by the excesses of the Republican Party. At the same time, Allende was of mature years when she put together this account. Comfortable with feminism, she seems less assured in her dealings with other aspects of the debates surrounding gender. Perhaps everyone could do with the insight of Professor Judith Butler. Professor Butler wrote:

“If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style.”

Allende is a sincere writer. She holds a mirror to the difficulties inherent in composing fresh work. Furthermore, she is open about how much effort a postmodern writer has to devote to marketing. Prepared to travel and to give something back to less fortunate people, Allende is an admirable figure with a great sense of fun.

Her memoir ended with an honest tribute to the authentic love she shared with her husband. However, this neat conclusion has been ripped up by later events. Her marriage ended as her husband found further grief too much to handle. This tragic outcome shows that life has a way of throwing harsh challenges at people who have done their best. There is something random about the world which tidy arithmetic can never capture.



Campbell and Progress: a marriage of inconvenience!

Alistair Campbell has underlined why the Labour leadership is still in quite a good position after the slightly disappointing local election results. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was understandably grumpy at the lack of progress. But the latest move by the distrusted spin doctor has taken some of the pressure off Team Corbyn.

Campbell is the personification of the dark arts of politics. He has a reputation which is worse than that of Machiavelli. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn might not have ever been the leader of the Labour Party if the controversial communicator had not trashed the Labour brand.

Regardless of the details, Campbell’s dreadful reputation is still contaminated by the disastrous Iraq War. He is the last person who can shift public opinion on the European Union. The antithesis of a British Macron, his lack of persuasiveness is only matched by his lack of self-awareness. His decision to speak at a Blairite conference was ill-timed. Furthermore, if he wanted to sway Labour members he should have taken his message to a more moderate part of the party. Moreover, his contention that the problems of Labour are not being amplified by the media or the right of the party is absurd.

Campbell thinks that an admiration for a football team and an honesty about his health problems gives him an authenticity. But the extent of his ideological delusion can be revealed by quoting his own words. As a sectarian figure at a sectarian event, he complained of sectarianism:

“I agreed some time ago to speak at today’s conference organised by Progress, often described as the moderate wing of the Labour Party. Here is the speech I am making this morning. It is time to get real; about how bad international politics is, with Trump and Putin in power; how bad Brexit is, with both main parties letting down the country by failing to be truthful about how their own tests are not being met, and how Brexit will damage the country; how bad things are for Labour, and how the leadership needs to confront the tough questions, not pretend they don’t exist, or pretend that they are all got up by a hostile media or has been sectarian Blairites.”

The Labour leadership has endured a bumpy couple of months. However, the goodwill members possess towards them is not exhausted. The ideal of a democratic Labour Party is a living one. Nobody can predict the outcome of the next election, but Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell must be comforted by the intellectual weakness of his internal opponents.

Monopoly Capitalism Redux

The theory of monopoly capitalism has Marxist origins. However, orthodox Marxism never embraced the thinking of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy. Their understanding of capitalist hegemony was viewed as heretical by some ideological gatekeepers. Non-Marxist influences were suspected, and some individuals thought that they accorded too much power to corporate oligopolies and monopolies.

This controversy might seem to be beside the point in a postmodern world. After all, the state has survived the apparent threat posed to it by neoliberalism. Globalisation has not prevented the nation state from intervening in markets. Nor have the crisis tendencies of capitalism been smoothed over by the forces of monopoly capital.

However, the debate is being revived at different scales of governance. Amazon and Facebook have challenged the state in various ways. International tax avoidance and corporate involvement in global politics has led to fresh controversy. In the UK, the idea of a merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda has also raised apprehension about the power of oligopolies.

British citizens are concerned about the cost of living. Brexit has added to this anxiety. But the biggest threat posed to the wallets of the people could really be coming from monopoly capitalism. We might think that we live in a postmodern world of fake politicians faking anger at fake news, but fractions of big capital may yet have the last laugh. The tragedy of postmodern politics is that it often evades big questions like climate change- while we are distracted, monopoly capitalism does not respect the planet or its people.

The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen

This text is a fascinating blend of the personal and the political. This readable study of the role Émile Zola played in the Dreyfus Case is a powerful reminder of the reactionary nature of all forms of anti-Semitism. Michael Rosen depicts Zola with admiration, but there is an honesty about his colourful portrait. After all, the great author was something of a bigamist, and he was prone to being preoccupied with his personal comfort.

Rosen has a real stake in the story. As a Jewish writer and as a socialist, he is grateful for the political intervention of J’Accuse. Zola was not the only brave person to speak up for Dreyfus, but he was one of the major victims of the affair. Zola felt compelled to flee to England, a country where he did not feel at home. His hatred of English cuisine was just one of his discontents.

The Dreyfus Case was sometimes used by English people to attack the French. But anti-Semitism was found on both sides of the Channel. In contrast, Zola believed in France, just not the France which buried some of its traditions to use Dreyfus as a scapegoat. Zola was an artist who often relied on realism, but like any other progressive thinker he could be appalled by the reactionary present.

Zola understood something that many anti-Semites never will. He was aware that there was no sinister international conspiracy. He also attacked the capitalism of his age in the strongest possible terms:

‘”There were really no Jew questions- at all; there was only a Capitalist question- a question of money heaped up in the hands of a certain number of gluttons and thereby poisoning and rotting the world.”‘


Nostalgia in politics is unhealthy. But who can claim that we have the quality of world leaders we once had? With bellicose Donald Trump threatening to confront the unprincipled Vladimir Putin, the new Cold War seems to be a cartoon version of the old one. It could be that it is the absence of progressive ideology on either side which makes the conflict into something that could be parodied.

Karl Marx was aware that the past weighed on the behaviour of political actors. If people believe they are making a new tune, they often rehash an old one. When describing a period of revolution, he wrote:

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world.”

Now we live in a different era, where the social world is not so open to radical transformation. But the new Cold War is being shaped by partial memories of the old one. It would be an error to view this aggressive simulation as anything other than a dangerous and unnecessary detour from logical governance.

The point about the Third Way of Tony Blair was its deliberate hostility to history. Things were made fresh by branding them as new. The liberal interventionists who hate Jeremy Corbyn want us to forget the mire of Iraq. They are keen to support conflict without weighing up the consequences. The catastrophe of Libya has taught them nothing.

The Cold War still colours our perceptions of the world, so we should remember how we survived it. Both sides understood that Mutually Assured Destruction was not the only tactic to deploy. Risky game theory did not have all the answers. Pragmatic leaders like Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon were able to do deals. This policy of détente meant that ordinary people were not so threatened. Like Nixon, Trump has an awkward relationship with truth. Could he show the statesmanship of Nixon and engage with Putin in a peaceful way?