After May, Labour and Left Unity

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in breaking the hold of the Conservatives on British politics. It is Corbyn who has brought the Labour vote up to the highest level – in percentage and total vote – for twenty years, and the biggest increase in the Labour vote since 1945. The question now is not if May will go, but when. The result also puts obstacles in the way of a ‘hard Brexit’. This victory for Corbyn, to be clear, is still within the limits of an electoral system geared toward the right, and internal Labour bureaucratic procedures geared to protecting sitting MPs who are rewarded by various competing reactionary lobby groups. This success is also within the limits set by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the weird alliances and manoeuvres of the unionist parties in Scotland – Scottish Labour and the Conservatives – which meant that Corbyn would always have been deprived of a working parliamentary majority at Westminster.

The election campaign has put the political project of the Labour Party National Executive Committee and the majority of tory-lite MPs into question, legitimating radical policies and energising a new generation of activists. Corbyn was hobbled by the restrictions placed on the content of the Labour manifesto and by the stubborn refusal of many MPs to include elements of the manifesto they disagreed with in their own local publicity, by exclusion of Corbyn’s image from many local Labour campaign leaflets, and even, in some cases, outright sabotage of the national Labour Party campaign. The manifesto could not include, for example, the decommissioning of Trident nuclear missiles and the conversion of nuclear-military jobs into socially-useful production, and this fault-line in the LP was seized on by the media and exploited by some anti-Corbyn MPs.

Corbyn was still, against all these odds, able to lead a radical campaign and, more important, to energise a new generation of voters, some of whom will continue the campaign for jobs, for the NHS and for human rights beyond 8 June. A majority of voters under 50 supported Corbyn, and a sizeable proportion of the over 50s voters were also won to his politics, or won back to LP politics after their defection during the treacherous Blair years. Many of those who joined Labour to back Corbyn during the two internal party elections for leader came out during the campaign not only to vote but also to leaflet and canvas, and for many of those who did get involved it was their first involvement in party politics.

However, most of the foot-soldiers in the Labour campaign were long-standing members of the party, doggedly carrying on in the face of the media-barrage against Corbyn, and pitching in behind their local MP. This hard work by the local Labour campaign teams and the flying visits to marginal constituencies understandably led to more recrimination against the ‘Corbynistas’ during the election. The absence of the new members was noted, and the price will be paid for this in the months after the election as the right-wing Labour MPs regroup and local activists suspicious of Corbyn will regroup behind them. This sizeable vote was for Corbyn but we should take care not to exaggerate what it means for the composition and politics of the Labour Party. It has not changed the composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and we have seen an influx of some unpleasant new right-wing Labour MPs who pose a serious danger to the so-called Corbyn revolution. Every vote we gathered for the left during the campaign will also strengthen the party apparatus and its reduction of politics to an electoral machinery, and this success will be used, as always, against the left.

The ‘new’ members and other supporters of Corbyn working with Labour on the doorstep were mainly existing activists from Left Unity or from other left groups who had thrown themselves into the campaign knowing full well that this election was a make and break moment, that it could be the making of a new left and it could break the Conservatives. There are consequences of the way this campaign was conducted on the ground now, both for the way that Labour activists in local wards and constituency parties will relate to the new left, and the way that Left Unity can relate to the mass movement for Corbyn.

From inside Labour we can reasonably expect that, given the political composition of most of the local party wards, there will not be the warm gratitude coming our way that we might wish for. We can, instead, expect a degree of caution towards us and even measured hostility; we will still be perceived as those who are rocking the boat. Corbyn’s victory – a massive increase in the vote and number of Labour MPs – will not lead to eager acceptance of Corbyn’s politics, rather a closing of ranks around the apparatus on the rationale that now is the time to consolidate Labour’s gains and heal the wounds of the splits that began to open up in the party. We saw grudging acceptance of Corbyn’s contribution during the campaign, and the Labour Party apparatus knows that it will need to bide its time before attempting to remove him. Their thanks for his help will turn into a complaint that the result could have been better, and the loyalty of new members will be impugned, systematically side-lined. The attempt by different left groups to join Labour and intervene in the internal debates will, in most cases, be viewed as ‘entrist’ dishonest interference – in the case of some groups, let’s face it, it will be entrist and dishonest – and that will intensify the problem. Corbyn supporters will balance political challenge with pragmatic expressions of loyalty to the party. Electoral success will not, for sure, lead to a questioning of electoral politics. Instead, the ‘long hard journey’ narrative will, for many long-standing Labour members, be reinforced by this success.

Just as participation by ‘outsiders’ was only tolerated on the basis that we gave out Labour’s own leaflets and nothing more, said nothing different, so Labour party meetings will, in most parts of the country, continue to be deadening to radical politics after the election. Seasoned activists in Left Unity or other left groups might be able to tolerate this and sustain themselves under this pressure, but it would be disastrous to encourage activists in the new Corbyn movement to actually join the party and suffocate inside it. We will not win people to our politics by encouraging them sign up to Labour, but will lead them instead into the labyrinthine machinery of the party, if they are not repelled altogether from politics by the experience.

Left Unity members need to be clear with the Labour activists they worked with during the campaign that they have no intention of colluding in this internal party apparatus politics, and that we actively participated in the election campaign alongside them, not so we could all carry on with business as usual, but precisely because we wanted to create the conditions for something different. We stayed outside the Labour Party because that meant that we had more room for manoeuvre, and that, more than ever, we must have that room for manoeuvre to be a critical friend of the few left Labour MPs, to campaign against cuts carried out by Labour councils and to build a real mass movement for Corbyn that works across the limits that are imposed by Labour membership and restrictive ‘loyalty’ to the party as such.

Any continued success for Corbyn and the new revived Labour movement that he has made possible will depend on a radical break with some of the old assumptions about British politics made by the party. We need to say to our new Labour Party friends that we need freedom of movement to be able to really build something out of this electoral success, and that means that we, and they with us, must begin to reshape the political terrain.

A crucial part of this reshaping of the terrain that the Corbyn movement must engage with, with serious implications for mainstream Labour politics, is what we do with Scottish Labour. The success of Corbyn south of the border is intimately connected with the success of the independence movement north of the border, a movement that must break with the Scottish National Party which it is too-closely associated with. Scottish Labour ran a brave campaign, and, as was the case for many old Labour MPs across Britain who knew they had to pull together to save their jobs, they were, during the campaign period, relatively loyal to the Corbyn leadership. Nevertheless, Scottish Labour worked with the other unionist party in Scotland, the Conservatives, to try and block the SNP. They, the unionists, also succeeded, reducing the SNP vote by 13%, and taking 21 seats from them (12 to the Tories, 6 to Labour and 3 to the Lib Dems). This unionist success takes the edge off Corbyn’s victory, making a tactical alliance with the SNP to form an anti-austerity government impossible. This, along with the increase of seats by the appalling reactionary Democratic Unionist Party in the north of Ireland (from 8 to 10 seats), and the refusal of Sinn Fein to take up the 7 seats it won, will make ‘Conservative and Unionist’ government, in the short term at least, possible. Left Unity must now speak out for Scottish independence – this is one of the breaking points that will make it difficult, if not impossible, for its members to join the Labour Party – and argue for Corbyn to build tactical alliances against the Conservatives.

Left Unity should also, as part of this sustained pressure on the Labour Party from the outside, explicitly argue for the right to affiliate to Labour. This declared open policy of Left Unity – that we see ourselves as part of the Corbyn mass movement – should be the basis for any possible meetings and campaigns with allies inside the party. We worked together across the party boundaries during the election campaign, and we must work together across those boundaries now. The Greens too maintained themselves as a credible force, not only by retaining the one seat in parliament but also by standing aside in some constituencies and campaigning for Labour, functioning as one of the models of independent left politics in the Corbyn movement. Left greens are our comrades in this struggle, in this new phase of struggle opened up by Corbyn.

A strong left presence inside the Labour Party is in our interests if it is to be open to action for change beyond election time, and we believe that this left presence will be better able to connect with the mass movement by explicitly connecting with us. Some of our comrades in different left organisations, including comrades who were once active in Left Unity, will be working inside Labour on this basis. Perhaps it is possible to turn some local Labour Party wards outwards, to make them bases of the movement that Corbyn inspired. Good luck to those working inside the Labour Party to do that, and we must do all we can to support them. But, we will only have the strength to maintain and build this independent left political profile if we organise outside Labour and win as many as possible of the new activists to Left Unity now, to build that independent left political profile with us.

 

You can read and comment on this article on the Left Unity site here

 

 

 

Left Unity

Looking for Eric, a Ken Loach film from 2009, sees Manchester postal worker Eric Bishop (played by ex-Fall bass guitar player and palindrome Steve Evets) at the end of his tether. He is messing up his job and his life, and it will be the collective mobilisation of his fellow postal workers that finally brings him back to reality. There are two kinds of reality in this film. The first is a fuzzy cannabis-induced dream state, false solutions to his problems in which his work comrades mix some stupid therapeutic self-help encouragement for Eric with time chilling out on pot. It is then, from this safe space, that Eric first encounters his hero, one-time Manchester United philosophical poetic footballer Eric Cantona. Eric Cantona becomes a kind of super-charged ideal of Eric Bishop, his spirit-guide mentor, and big footballer Eric gives little postal-worker Eric the advice and strength to trust himself and his mates. Ken Loach uses a cinematic directorial device in the film that has marked a number of his films, one in which he springs a surprise on the actor to get a more authentic reaction, in this case on Steve Evets who never imagined that he would actually meet big Eric. The turning point is in little Eric’s bedroom when he appeals to a life-size poster asking big Eric for advice, turns around, and finds your man standing there in the room. Loach aims to dissolve boundaries between cinema and reality, for the actors and for viewers who he clearly hopes will also become actors on the stage of life.

The second reality is one that little real-world Eric is now ready to confront, the grim reality of harder drug-gangs, gun-violence and YouTube blackmail. Now he is ready, with the big hallucinatory Eric’s advice, to take on the gang leader, and does this by mobilising his worker-comrades and other Manchester United supporters in ‘Operation Cantona’; in a glorious collective rebellion, they all descend on the house of the gang leader wearing Eric Cantona face-masks, trash the place and make it clear that they won’t take any more shit, forcing the baddies to pull the incriminating clips from social media. Solidarity is the watchword of this film, and Eric Cantona, who approached Loach and part-funded the film, is but a mediating fiction, something that will galvanise our Eric into action, to take control of his life again. It’s a great political comedy through which Ken Loach makes use of the big screen to re-energise non-celebrities, making use of figures like Cantona to build something different from the base up. But the rebellion is still cinematic rather than realistic; staged and feel-good, it is unclear how this dream-mobilisation will play out after the fun is over, giving us an inspiring moral tale in which we don’t know what will happen when big Eric leaves the field, no pointers to what to do next. Could the next step be to form a political party?

We had to wait for Loach’s 2013 The Spirit of ’45 about the formation and erosion of the National Health Service to spark an alliance of left groups and individuals pissed off with mainstream politics to try to build something different. Loach’s call for a new party to the left of the Labour Party led to the founding of Left Unity (LU) later that year after his call was signed by over 10,000 people. The Eric Cantona figure in the history of LU, and Cantona should be first-choice to play our hero in any future bio-pic, our hero who is, of course, Ken Loach. Ken was the inspiration and guide of LU, attending the founding conference and other key events, until, that is, the nucleus of a new party to the left of Labour started to appear in a most unexpected place, inside the Labour Party itself with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. Then Ken had done his work for all the little Erics in LU, marched them up the hill and down again to leave them to it, up the creek without a paddle, without a strategy, the fun and the party all but over.

As a result, LU is now suspended somewhere between two dream-worlds, between the optimistic heights of its influence with over 2000 members in the two years between 2013 and 2015 and a harsher more disappointing time of plummeting membership as people have drifted, along with Ken Loach himself, into the new Jeremy fan-club and old-style party-political bureaucratic hell. The first dream-world was bad enough, and in some LU branch meetings a good deal worse than staggering through a smoky weed-garden. Would-be ‘policy-makers’ seized control of different commissions in the new party, spending months hammering out pie-in-the-sky proposals which would, everyone involved knew, never be put into practice. These folks jostled alongside individuals who had either been burnt once by the far-left and who, understandably, never really wanted to be in a left party ever again and hardened apparatchiks of some of the worst of the existing revolutionary organisations who piled in, either to raid LU for new members or to steer it to a full revolutionary programme (that is, theirs).

In the middle of all this for these two years, the hey-day of LU, were individuals who really did, in the words of the tag-line of the party, want to ‘do politics differently’, and that included feminist and anti-racist activists who also wanted this to be a different kind of space, safe to talk, to share ideas and organise without being shouted down. This argument for much-parodied therapeutic ‘safe spaces’ in LU became one of the bug-bears of the hard-faced old left, particularly the little robotic battalions of the sects who used their paper to name and shame anyone they disagreed with. LU as a consequence became very unsafe for a lot of people, a bit like coming down after a bad trip. Social media spaces for LU rapidly degenerated from being opportunities for debate into arenas for recrimination and threat, lurching from one ridiculous topic to the next (with one notorious Facebook discussion thread devoted to whether we should have the right to masturbate at work). It looked like we would be dragged back into the first fuzzy reality when nothing really happened, waiting hopelessly for the call to action, for the breakthrough into the second reality of collective resistance.

Presiding uneasily over these different kinds of politico-head very keen to give stupid and misleading advice about the way forward were Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson; now the captains of the ship trying to keep it afloat. Helping them in the first two years was Socialist Resistance (SR), a group reluctant to lead and spending most of its energies trying to stop LU going too far to the left, to keep it functioning as a broad left alternative to Labour. This was a group that eventually jumped ship and many of its members found what they thought would be a safer home in the Labour Party, along with mentor spirit-guide Ken. So loyal were SR to Ken that members of rival groups accused him of being a member of SR. He was not, and, if anything, was viewed by many in SR as being ‘ultra-left’.

LU was waiting for ‘Operation Ken’, but Corbyn’s election did for that hope, and now the dwindling party is left on the rocks, still ‘Looking for Ken’. Perhaps he was no more than a dream, evoking no more than the ‘spirit’ of free health care and a welfare state, welfare that is efficiently being demolished. The brute reality is that the Labour Party apparatus seems unable or unwilling to build a campaign against austerity, hobbled by its loyalty to local Labour-led councils that are implementing the cuts, even when Corbyn himself built up the Labour vote on a radical vote during the election campaign. LU is still an alternative, the best alternative in complex times, but now struggling to find the plot, and will have to do it on its own, a diminished but necessary force outside the Labour Party. The nasty surprise now is that, when members of Left Unity appeal to their posters of Ken Loach for advice on their bedroom walls today they then turn around and, they find that he is not there.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

 

 

Asylum Action and Reaction and Action

Asylum Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry has been going for over thirty years. It has had special issues on anti-capitalism, on disability, on queer and feminist and Black politics. It is an essential resource for linking different kinds of social movement. It celebrates its years of activity bringing together mental health system survivors, professionals willing to practice in a different way and academics who teach and carry out critical research. We celebrate and discuss on Wednesday 28 June 2017 in an International Conference that will bring together well over 100 activists from around the world.

The conference is in the Roscoe Building at the University of Manchester, with registration beginning at 9.30. We will gather together to hear about radical alternatives to medical psychiatry, and we will take stock of some of the debates that have been aired in the pages of our magazine over the last three decades. We have a big party on the evening of the 28 June, which we are inviting all those attending during the day to stay over for, along with activists from Manchester who will have chance to eat and drink and discuss and take forward the different initiatives that the magazine supports.

The theme of this special anniversary conference is ‘Action and Reaction’, and around that theme we will be bringing together debates over the different ways in which Asylum and its supporters and its friends in other radical mental health movements have been involved in action and what the consequences of some of the reactions to these initiatives have been.

The programme for the day is packed. The morning chaired by Helen Spandler and China Mills is organised around contributions on the questions of ‘Survivor-led Research’ (with Diana Rose), ‘Creative Responses (with Rufus May), ‘Therapeutic Support’ (with Yasmin Dewan), ‘Critical Psychiatry’ (with Joanna Moncrieff), ‘Anti-Psychiatry’ (with Roy Bard) and ‘Neoliberalism’ (with Mick McKeown).

We follow up these interventions with afternoon break-out sessions facilitated by special guests, and including contributions from Anne Plumb, Lili Fullerton, Jen Kilyon, ActivaMent, David Morgan, Nancy Leaver, Suman Fernando, Alex Dunedin, Phil Thomas, Rich Moth, Conor McCormack and David Branson. These contributions include discussion on the Soteria House movement, support for Whistleblowers and the Heidelberg Socialist Patients Collective. Alongside these afternoon break-out sessions we have workshops on ‘Psychosis and Trauma’ (with John Read and Bob Johson), ‘Can Clinical Psychology be Radical?’ (with Craig Newnes) and ‘Mad Love: Redesigning the Asylum’ (with Hannah Hull).

We have fantastic papers in the afternoon with Sam Warner and Clare Shaw, Chris Wood, Rowland Urey, Karlijn Roex, Wilson Franco and Paulo Beer and Dolly Sen. Our contributors come from across the UK, and we also have visitors from Brazil, Catalunya and Germany.

We round off the day with a plenary session with the editor and managing editor of Asylum Magazine (Phil Virden and Helen Spandler) to discuss future special issues and other possible events around the country that Alex Dunedin is already beginning to coordinate. Alex, of the Ragged University, will be collecting together digital versions of the posters and hosting them on the Ragged University Mad World Archive. We welcome more posters and stalls from different groups, please contact us about this on asylumconference2017@gmail.com

That is just the daytime! We finish the day event at 5pm, and then Alex has organised an evening event which will begin at 6pm and go on until late at Gullivers in Manchester City Centre. It is a large venue and there will be free food and drink and music and lots of chance to talk. Join us on the day, and the evening, and support us through crowd-funding for the event. If you are looking for accommodation, your best bet is to use www.booking.com, looking for somewhere near the Manchester University campus, for which the postcode is M13 9PL.

Links for 28 June Asylum Action and Reaction event:

Registration is still open at this link.

The programme for the day is here at this link

The crowd-funding link is here

The Asylum Magazine website is here

https://www.facebook.com/events/117183712033425/

You can contact us about the day at asylumconference2017@gmail.com

 

Serbia

Serbia, with just over seven million people, is isolated. Once the centre of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), Yugoslavia led by Josip Broz Tito as head of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia from 1945 after successful partisan struggle during the war until Tito’s death in 1980. Serbia has been dismembered during a bloody civil war in the 1990s. It is now land-locked, edged to the east and north by former Soviet bloc countries which it dramatically broke from in 1948 – Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary – and to the north-west, west and south by its former associated republics in the federation, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia. Even the naming of these other rival entities in this context is now filled with dispute and unresolved enmity. Serbia stands alone, with the exception – an irony of history – of Russia, and it is a country now with increasing trade-links with China.

The break with Stalin in 1948 opened up a period of so-called ‘self-management socialism’ and some degree of freedom of manoeuvre for leftist dissidents and intellectuals who were then able to connect with the anti-Stalinist left outside the country. Meetings that included the ‘Praxis’ philosophers functioned as a relay-point for radical ideas not only from Marxist traditions outside Yugoslavia but also for a current of Yugoslav thought that was re-thinking what was possible in conditions of isolation. Tito tried to break that isolation of Yugoslavia through active participation in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which was founded at Brioni (which is now in Croatia) in 1956, a movement which now continues with 120 nation-state members.

The Yugoslav experiment thus became a touchstone for many socialists looking for an alternative to the Soviet model, an alternative to Stalinism, but it failed, and the reasons why it failed ripple on through Serbia today. It was a country that attempted to build socialism in one republic under siege, under pressure both from Stalinist Eastern Europe faithful to Moscow and from capitalist Western Europe determined to undermine any claim for the success of an anti-capitalist alternative. It failed not only because it was isolated but also because ‘self-management socialism’ was a fiction that patched together workers in different competing local enterprises with a state in which there was still the iron-grip of the League of Communists, an apparatus of censorship that held the regime in place.

Now with the destruction of the old socialism what remains is authoritarian nostalgia and intolerance of difference. On 10 May 2017 Bernard-Henri Lévi, one of the leading figures in the right-wing Nouveaux Philosophes group in France in the 1970s, got a cake in his face at the Belgrade Cultural Center. The protest against Lévi was orchestrated by Novi SKOJ, a ‘communist’ youth group with a tiny membership but control of one of the old League of Communists headquarters. The Novi SKOJ activists unfurled a banner (in English) reading ‘Bernard Levy advocates imperialist murders’ and they shouted abuse at Lévi over his support for the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia. The SKOJ website declares itself to be against imperialist intervention in Cuba and Venezuela, and a young activist interviewed on the radio after the event declared that China was a good model for good economic commonsense combined with socialist values.

The cake protest is indicative of the level of continued anger in Serbia, not only at the bombing as such, but of the isolation of the regime, with some politicians keen to take Serbia into the European Community, and others closer to Putin. The anger flows into disruption of cultural events that appear to be in line with Western European agendas, into seething resentment at the dismantling of the old socialist state structures, and into nationalist protest that spills quickly over into racism, including antisemitism. It is no accident, perhaps, that Lévi (in Belgrade to launch his new film project Peshmerga) was attacked; a prominent Jewish intellectual, he fits the bill as one of the visible enemies onto which the woes of the old Stalinist forces, now willing to engage in Red-Brown alliances to match what is happening in Russia and Ukraine can project their hatred. One young activist told me again about the incident but said the protest was against the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, an innocent slip we laughed about at the time but could have explored further; such are the chains of the symbolic we relay as we speak, unable to think through at every precise moment, about their manifold contradictory meanings.

There is sympathy in Belgrade, even among some ostensible leftists, with the Orbán regime in Hungary that is busy demonising George Soros as the architect of Western intellectual intervention. As the Slovene Slavoj Žižek pointed out, one of the signifiers of antisemitic discourse in the Balkans today is ‘Soros’, emblematic of the current paranoid fascination with the idea that Jews are deliberately arranging the migration of the Muslim hordes from the Arab world into Europe, with Serbia one of the first stops for this Judaic-Islamic destruction of their own culture. Remember that Žižek himself had declared during the NATO bombing that it was ‘too little, too late’, a phrase that was quickly removed from later versions of his widely circulated discussion of the events at the time, and his face appears graffitied on Belgrade buildings with the cryptic legend (in Serbian Roman script) ‘Sing like Slavoj’ (a pun on his name, which is similar in sound to that of a small songbird in Serbian).

While SKOJ represents one of the most regressive and marginal nationalist strands of ‘Yugostalgia’ – a local variant of nostalgia for the old socialism – there are other variants of this kind of politics at the centres of power. The party of Slobodan Milošević – the Socialist Party of Serbia (with a Cyrillic website) – is in coalition with the Democratic Party and with the newly-elected nationalist president Aleksandar Vučić, who is currently head of the Progressive Party (Srpska Napredna Stranka – SNS) but well-known as a one-time activist with the far-right ‘Radical Party’. He served as minister of information under Milošević. Protests reached 50,000 on the streets after Vučić’s election in April 2017. The April Belgrade street protests were partly about voting irregularities, but also about the austerity, privatisation and ‘security’ measures to be reinforced by the Vučić regime. The SNS and the Socialist Party effectively co-opt ‘socialist’ rhetoric about the good old days while steering the country in a neoliberal direction. There is also a tiny Communist Party of Serbia run by its President Joška Broz, Tito’s grandson. The Serbian Government website judiciously balances support for various dictatorships that will engage in economic deals.

Once strongly opposed to the EU, Vučić is pushing negotiations to join it. And he is rewarded by kind words from Angela Merkel who is more than happy to overlook Vučić’s youthful flirtation with fascism and current authoritarian policies; while Merkel presents herself to her European audience as tolerant generous host to refugees, a strong state in Serbia is perfect for her insofar as it functions as a heavily securitised state apparatus to prevent refugees from the Arab world crossing its borders and so then making their way to Germany. Anti-immigrant practice is in this way encouraged inside Serbia. In early May 2017 the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Immigration forcibly removed 1,200 refugees from the centre of Belgrade on the pretext that the building needed to be demolished. The officials carrying out the evacuation wore protective clothing and sprayed the refugees from Afghanistan and the Arab world with disinfectant. There were protests by NGOs working with asylum-seekers, and there is some grassroots mobilisation by progressive groups like No border Serbia.

There is a deep antisemitic and nationalist dynamic in much mainstream organised politics which is fuelled by a particular preoccupation with Serb identity under threat and with the centrifugal process that was unleashed in the final years of the SFRY. There is, for example, a motif of victim-hood that Milošević used to mobilise the Serbs as the chosen people, even in some representations of them as being the equivalent of the Jews suffering at the hands of external agents; this simultaneously with a dose of covert antisemitism in which the implication was that those external agents were conspiring to destroy the Serb nation, agents such as Soros (sometimes with Soros as ringleader). Not incidentally, many of the anecdotes that spatter Žižek’s writing are from a popular big book of Jewish jokes published in Belgrade in the 1970s.

The defining moment of Milošević’s turn from anything approaching socialism to full-blown nationalism came after his visit to Kosovo in 1989 and his declaration in his Gazimistan speech that the Serbs must redeem their defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. This defining moment 600 years in the past functioned, according to some analysts, as the ‘chosen trauma’ of the Serbs under Milošević, and it positioned them as victims with a mission to overturn the oppression to which they had been subjected. It is a victim motif that recurs in Serbia today whenever the question of self-determination of Kosovo is raised; the spectre is raised that the Kosovans really want to take a third of Serbian territory, that there must be limits to self-determination because the Kosovans will not limit themselves to their own territory (and, alongside that argument, there is often the claim that the Kosovan territory is itself actually always already Serb). This is the soil into which are planted ridiculous stereotypes about the ‘Serbian mentality’ that some of the nationalist locals wallow in, rehearsed in many books for sale in the bookshops.

As Goran Musić points out in his 2016 study (published in Serbian and English by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung) ‘Serbia’s Working Class in Transition 1988-2013’, there was a deadly oscillation between two different ideological strategies employed by Milošević. On the one hand, the regime, even before its disintegration in the 1980s, based its rule on the workplace units, the ‘Basic Organisations of Associated Labour’, and this economic decentralisation effectively incited competition between different enterprises (and between industrially stronger and weaker parts of the republic which eventually became configured around specific local nationalist agendas). The nomenclature positioned itself, Musić argues, as a kind of ‘social glue’, and in this way the regime was able to define the class interests of the Yugoslav working class as national interests. At one moment there was a call for pro-market initiatives which set different groups of workers against each other, and at the next there were attempts to define what counted as ‘working class’ around society as a whole.

This oscillation and contradiction between competitive local enterprise as the basis of working-class identity and a general overarching definition of shared national identity – the shared overall project of self-management socialism – came to a head in the 1980s when the economic crisis was addressed primarily through pro-market initiatives which did explicitly set the different republics against each other and which led Serbia to define itself not only as the central guiding state apparatus but also against Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia (which was being levered out of the SFRY through German capital investment). Musić argues that this then led to the Serbian nation emerging as the key ideological motif and strategic centre-piece for guaranteeing the power of the bureaucracy under Milošević: ‘By placing it in the role of victim of imperialism and bureaucratic machinations, the Serbian nation as a whole was assigned with attributes once reserved for the proletariat. In official language, the term ‘working class’ was starting to be used interchangeably with the term ‘Serbian people’, only to be completely overtaken by it a few years later on’.

This is, indeed, one of the fruits of ‘socialism in one country’ into which is stirred the poison of victimhood and corresponding search for malevolent external forces who might be blamed for Serbia’s predicament. Musić describes the spate of factory protests and even occupations that were tangled with the privatisation process through which members of the apparatus were able to transfer ownership into their own hands, tangled with that process but unable to defeat it.

Serbia’s capital Belgrade, with less than two million people, means ‘White City’, a name unfortunately relevant during the contemporary refugee crisis, and in the response of the authorities to immigrants, Kosovans and Roma. There is a small Roma and Chinese community in the city. The Belgrade Fortress at the confluence of the Danube and Sava functions as a national park laid out, the signs say, ‘in the English style’. The fortress was an Ottoman stronghold, and there are the remains of a hamam in the grounds, and the fortress then functioned as a site of resistance to the Turks and other enemies of the Serbs. The fortress area includes a military museum and, in one of the sunken moat fortifications, next to the dinosaur park (filled with not-quite lifestyle bad-animatronics) there are displays of tanks and NATO equipment seized in 1999. There is a meteorite museum which rehearses one of the commonplace plaints, with a placard inside saying ‘Unfortunately, because of everything that happened in our country over the past 100 years, the fate of these meteorites remains unknown’.

On the plinth of a monument in the Fortress Park erected in 1930 in gratitude to the French for its help to Serbia during World War One was a rain-sodden poster with images of some of those murdered in the 78 days of bombing (with the names in Cyrillic) and the legend ‘NATO We will never forgive you for killing our children’. The main pedestrianised shopping street, Knez Mihailova, is lined with Western store-names, and fetches onto the nearby informal market-stalls in the grounds of the fortress which sell old Tito-era military uniform hats and party-badges, mugs with Tito’s face printed on, T-shirts with Putin on, and, next to those, some more emblazoned with images of the war criminals Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić.

The small town of Zemun, where now-president Vučić went to high school, is on the Danube about an hour walk from Novi Beograd, and is base of the B92 radio station, a Greek-owned outfit which was one of the sources of alternative news during the 1999 NATO bombing but which today pumps out a weird post-truth mixture of US-American programmes and pro-Putin propaganda from Sputnik. Novi Beograd, a housing and shopping complex on one side of the Sava facing the old main city of Belgrade on the other bank, also includes the SFRY old-soviet-style architect-nightmare block for what was once the Federal Executive Council of Yugoslavia (still used for public functions as the ‘Palace of Serbia’ to impress foreign dignitaries) and the League of Communists tower block which was badly hit during the bombing, and which is only a few hundred metres from housing blocks (some of the occupants of which were injured during that time).

Language is one of the battlegrounds, with increasing use of English in the media, and Cyrillic is one of the markers of that battleground, indicating adherence to a distinctive ‘Serbian’ identity that has been manufactured since the split with Croatia and with the other Yugoslav republics. Once ‘Serbo-Croat’, now the digraphic language of Serbia (that is, written in two different scripts with the same meaning) is torn between the Roman script which is used in Croatia and the other ex-republics, and Cyrillic which also serves to tie Serbia closer to Russia. The political battle over Cyrillic and Roman script is over-determined by class. For example, some digraphic street-names in central Belgrade have been defaced, with stickers or graffiti obscuring the Roman version of the names. And, at the same time, the Saturday night performance of Aida in the National Theatre – a glittering golden palace of culture which packed nearly seventy performers onto the stage on one point – was surtitled in Cyrillic script. The mainstream broadsheet press is still published in Cyrillic (as is official documentation in the university), while the tabloid press, which includes one simply called ‘Tabloid’, is in Roman script.

There is elaborate graffiti around the waterfront, along the Danube and the Sava which flows down from Slovenia, once the northernmost republic in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, including the SKOJ tagline ‘Yankees go home’ (in English) and ‘Crimea is Russian’ in Cyrillic. Most graffiti, apart from the pro-Putin stuff and some ‘freedom of movement’ slogans (in English), is non-political, including a number of brightly-coloured images with the tag-line ‘Go Vegan’ (most in English but some in Cyrillic transliterated from the English rather than in Serbian), and one of the best vegetarian restaurants – Radost House – has no public signage. Visitors wander up and down the road peering in the windows before the waiter comes out and says ‘I guess you are looking for me’. The restaurant-owner is apparently against a sign, I was told, for ‘political reasons’.

The interval announcement during the performance of Aida at the National Theatre included advertising for a private health company, to the fury of some in the audience but with bland acceptance by most. Public education and healthcare are in the firing line along with housing. Now the privatisation process is being intensified, and that is another reason Merkel loves Vučić, and most of that privatisation is tied to foreign investment in Serbia, a process which also intensifies nationalist resentment and a nationalist spin on protest against finance capital.

In another 2016 document produced by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Ivan Radenković’s ‘Foreign Direct Investments in Serbia’, Aleksandar Vučić is quoted as saying that Serbia’s workforce is lazy, inefficient and accustomed to working under the rules of socialist self-management, something he also refers to as ‘mob’ mentality. Against this, Vučić argues, Serbia needs a German work ethic, and foreign investment will enable this, not only through the injection of capital but also through the work discipline that will be imposed in the process. Radenković points out that, contrary to the public claims by the government, wages in foreign-owned factories in Serbia range from the minimum wage – that is very minimum – and barely 20 percent more than that. Again, the problems stem not only from the recent neoliberal turn under a far-right president, but have their roots in economic ‘reforms’ undertaken under Tito. Economic reforms from 1965 promoted integration into international markets, and amendments to the Law on the Funds of Economic Organisations in 1967 created a legal basis for importing capital in the form of joint venture investments. New laws in 1978 and 1988 enabled all kinds of foreign investments. The largest foreign investments in Serbia are now Telenor (Norwegian), Gazprom Neft (Russian), Fiat (Italian), Delhaize (Belgian) and Philip Morris (US-American).

There was very little authentic socialist presence in the 2017 elections. One of the most successful fringe candidates was a comedian running for the ‘You haven’t tried the stuffed cabbage’ party. He came third with nearly ten percent of the vote. There is also a monarchist movement. In 2008 students at the University of Belgrade founded a group called King’s Youth which has now established itself as the Kingdom of Serbia Association, dedicated to restoring Prince Aleksandar to the throne in a ‘constitutional monarchy’. The Prince returned to Serbia in 2001 and lives with his wife in one of the former palaces. 123,000 signatures had been gathered by May 2017 toward the target 150,000 which, the Association claims, will enable them, without a referendum, to restore the Karadjordjevic dynastic line that ruled Serbia until 1945 when the Yugoslav Republic was declared.

There is, however, also a flourishing of alternative movements and the April protests against Vučić indicate that socialism of some kind, after what one young activist described to me as the ‘dead blank years of the 1990s’, is being reborn. This includes a small Trotskyist presence, a political current demonised by the various Yugostalgic Stalinist groups. I attended a Monday evening meeting at the OCTOBAR radical space in Belgrade that brought together members of different radical social movements. The space is entered through a non-descript doorway off a side-street, down some badly-lit tiled steps and through a plate-steel door with a second intercom entry system. There was a fascist attack on the centre last year, and fascist gangs. Inside there is a bar, an open patio area and meeting rooms, and, a humanising presence in this new left space, a cat wandering about. This is one of the homes of Left Summit Serbia which brings together many of the left initiatives as well as other civic groups. We discussed the role of different social movements, including those focused on the recent election protests, and anti-demolition groups, including a quasi-environmentalist one focused on the waterfront ‘development’ which is called ‘Don’t Drown Belgrade’. This is an initiative which is part of the ‘United Civic Front’ which is routinely attacked in the Belgrade press for being small and inefficient (which begs a question as to why the press feels the need to repeatedly undermine it). The anti-demolition campaigns also mobilise in support of residents who have been subjected to forced evacuation from their homes after the transfer of social housing to private companies and the attempt by those companies to ratchet up their profits through various ‘development’ strategies, strategies that usually, not surprisingly, rely on foreign investment.

The following morning, Tuesday, there was a large successful protest by some of those involved in the OCTOBAR meeting and other groups against evictions of tenants in a working-class residential area of the city. The protests go back to privatisation of housing that took place from 2000 to 2012, the period of what is known as the ‘Bulldozer revolution’. The coalition government headed by the Democratic Party together with the right and then, from 2008 with the Miloševićite Socialist Party oversaw a rapid shift to an explicitly market-oriented economy which benefitted war-profiteers, those who were able to make a killing financially from real estate. These ostensibly self-made capitalists used family and party ties with the government to secure access to properties which they then wanted to ‘develop’.

One case in point was the Trudbenki construction company which was bought up in 2007 by a member of the Democratic Party who was ex-chair of Belgrade City Council and which then quickly went bankrupt after the new owner sold off its assets. The apartments had originally been built by a workers cooperative and were part of a public housing programme, but these needed to be stripped out to realise profit for the new owners. A bank now has property claims confirmed by courts and supported by the state apparatus, with a deal struck between the owner and the bank to evict thirty families and demolish the whole street. There have been numerous threats against the tenants, and they have had to pay huge court expenses already as well as fines of 5,000 to 10,000 Euros for each household because they live there without permission. This for residents that include pensioners who now receive only 40 Euros a month following government cuts, an austerity agenda demanded by private banks and by the EU. The government is keen to bow to the diktats of the IMF, and is seen by the left as being ‘more IMF than IMF’. The protest, which included anarchists and neighbours, stopped the eviction, deterring the twenty police sent over that morning. The bailiff didn’t appear, and now the owner apparently has no obligation to send notice of the next eviction attempt. Fascist groups which attack the left and LGBT initiatives are also used by private contractors to beat back civic protests.

Feminism and queer politics was present in Left Summit Belgrade, and is, activists at the OCTOBAR meeting claimed, woven into the fabric of the new movements, and not necessarily needed to be declared as a separate resource; there was an immediate intuitive resonance with debates about ‘intersectionality’ that evening. In fact, one of the first national groups in the International Socialist Tendency (IST) to publicly object to the crisis over sexual violence in the British SWP – the group which effectively controls the IST – was the Belgrade-based Marks21. Unfortunately Marks21 could not resist put programmatic demands to the Left Summit Serbia as a condition for staying involved, and left the alliance when their demands were refused. Even so, they were invited to the OCTOBAR meeting, and are part of the protests against the rigged election.

There is a grim history, but there are, in this difficult context, signs of resistance. There has always been resistance in Serbia, just as there was resistance at the heart of US-American imperialism during the Vietnam war when youth refused to sign up to fight. In Serbia there were over 300,000 deserters from the fighting in the 1990s, and the response to call up to the armed forces was only 50%, and only 15% in Belgrade. When deserters sought refuge in other countries of the EU they were not treated as refugees, but returned to Serbia. The struggle of refugees is always a struggle for the rights of the oppressed, and Serbia is another case in point. There are now also signs of the development of a political tradition that can draw an honest balance-sheet of the successes and failures of ‘socialism’ in Yugoslavia and build alliances through which socialism might actually eventually realise itself there.

This is one of the ‘Socialisms‘ FIIMG series of articles

More than voting now!

Ian Parker is on the doorstep with Labour.

These are the last days, a countdown to 8 June, and to a vote that will set the course for more austerity, more privatisation and a crackdown on civil liberties over the next five years, or one that will lay the basis for an increasingly confident fight-back and the resurgence of the left, of feminist, anti-racist and ecological struggle.

You do not have to be a member of the Labour Party to support the campaign, through leafleting or even through canvassing. I am not a member, but I simply turned up at the campaign office round the back of Withington Community Fire Station and asked for some leaflets. Withington constituency was seized from the Tories in 1987 by Keith (now Lord) Bradley who held it until 2005, part of the wipe-out of the Tories in Manchester, one of the side-effects, I was told by the Labour campaign team, of Thatcher. They gave me a round to do, letters which were targeted letters to possible voters, which is where you start to realise how hard a postie’s job is, how important it is to know how door-numbering works, and how misleading addresses are in this part of the world. The anthropologist Kate Fox notes in her book Watching the English, that these people who are so proud of their home as their castle also seem to take great pains to conceal the numbers on their houses.

Delivering personally-addressed messages from Jeff Smith – sitting MP for Withington – was not as easy as it seemed, involving endless detours around the backs of shared buildings and down hidden stairwells to doors with tiny letterboxes. The next round the next day, a huge block of glossy fold-over A4 leaflets with Jeff’s face all over them was a different matter. A bit more freedom over the addresses because I didn’t have to search for particular numbers, but more difficulty getting the things through letterboxes that seem to be cunningly and deliberately blocked with layers of brush; to get the leaflets through those ones you have to fold the leaflets around several times more and push them through with some force. And there is the question of what to do with multiple-tenancy houses with up to eighteen separate flats, whether to push eighteen leaflets through or make do with a smaller sample.

You don’t need to be the cleverest detective in the world to deduce that Jeff Smith is no friend of Corbyn. This is an issue that came up at the Withington for Corbyn campaign meeting soon after the election was called; activists were angrily asking why it was that the usual Labour Party practice of showing the smiling candidate shaking hands with the leader had been abandoned. There are no pictures or mentions of Corbyn on Jeff’s leaflets. This is the onward march of two parties – Labour divided between the apparatus (central office, the sitting MPs and a host of loyal members who have been in this for the long haul and who set their sights on a party in government that hopes to stem the worst effects of the crisis and save as many services as possible) and the new upsurge of membership, with supporters energised by what Corbyn promises; a movement that will take us beyond the limits of what capitalism will give us, that will mobilise people to build for more fundamental change.

There is a problem, and the deep rift between apparatus Labour politics and the new Corbyn supporters does not directly map onto a difference between passive reformists on the one hand and activists on the other. In some places, the mapping is exactly the opposite of what the new Corbyn left would hope for, with the old Labour apparatus supporters now actually the most hard-working activists campaigning for a Labour victory and bitterly complaining about the absence on the doorstep of all the new Corbynites who, they claim, are no more than paper members. I have already been harangued by an old comrade, a member of the Labour Party who told me that she hadn’t seen any of the new members out to leaflet or canvas. Actually, she also told me during the last general election campaign that she was happy to agree with voters on the doorstep that a vote for the Greens would do just as well, and she told them to go for it. This time I think that line will be harder, the stakes are higher.

Withington is not, strictly-speaking, a ‘marginal’ constituency, but it could still slip back into the hands of the Liberal Democrats who held it until the last election. It is home of John Leech, the only Lib Dem (and the only non-Labour councillor) on Manchester City Council, Leech who briefly held the seat until Jeff Smith took it. (It is a deeply liberal place, including a recent influx from the media-workers relocated to Salford from London, and Leech’s ward in Withington also recorded the lowest percentage vote for UKIP in the whole country.) The Lib Dems are a real threat, with the Tories pretty well invisible, and most Tory voters going for the Lib Dems, especially this time with the absence of a UKIP candidate.

A little team met on bank holiday Monday in the car-park behind the Co-op, and we were given canvassing prompt leaflets: Say “Sorry to disturb you” when someone opens their door, “Smile and be polite” and “always shut the gate”, and so on. And there were codes for the team leaders to indicate how people were going to vote. L = Labour and T = Tory, of course, and S is for Lib Dem because S stands for SDP, the old 1981 breakaway from Labour led by the gang of four (Jenkins, Owen, Rogers and Williams), an outfit that eventually folded into the Liberals to form the Lib Dems, and B is for UKIP (that is, B for BNP). Jeff Smith was there. “And if someone keeps banging on and on about Brexit”, one of the team was saying, “point out that Jeff voted against triggering article 50 twice”. I commented that he was right to do that (yes I do think that), and then Jeff drove us over to East Didsbury, taking us via Fog Lane to see if the Tory campaign office was open. It was not. Jeff talked about discussion on the MPs WhatsApp group about the recent slippage in support, grimly putting it down to what he called ‘The Leadership’. No one disagreed with him. I asked him about a phone conversation he had a few days ago with a relative keen to quiz him about antisemitism and the necessity to support Israel. Jeff said he thought the conversation had gone well and that he had some sympathy with her. There was then agreement in the car that the best way to deal with Ken Livingstone was to expel him from the party. I said that it was probably a good thing that Ken was keeping quiet at the moment. This was not the moment for a political fight. We were, at this moment, striking together.

The morning round was targeted at households where there had either been an indication that they might vote Labour or had voted Labour in the past. One voter told me she wanted the flood waters outside her house dealt with but that, whether or not anything was done about it, she would vote Labour. She took a poster to put up. Another voter told me that he would vote for whoever stopped the kids riding their motorbikes around the park and throwing stones at his windows. I said I would talk to the team about it. A Green voter told me that this time he would make an exception, this time he was for Labour, and he took a poster for his window. Another told me that she was worried about Diane Abbott, and wanted to know how “we” – she said she had once been a Labour Party member and “not a Blairite” – “could get our party back”. She said she felt sorry for us, and I felt sorry too. This was not the moment for a political fight; we needed to get round the rest of our target voters.

The afternoon round in Burnage included a member who said he supported Corbyn, but my campaign team was led by someone who I knew from a while back, and knew he was resolutely hostile to Corbyn. It didn’t stop us working together, even when I forgot the names of some of the people in one house I had knocked on; he tapped his clip-board saying “we need the data”. There were moments when anxiety about accusations that could be levelled against us kicked in; at one point, for example, one of us helped a voter fill out his postal vote, but then had to take the envelope back to that house saying that we could not actually post it for them, but they could ask their neighbour to do it. Would it matter that I was not actually a member of the party I was campaigning for? No. I realised quite early on that it didn’t make sense to say that I was a member of the Labour Party and managed things by saying (politely) that I was “with the Labour Party”. That’s true. I was.

Leafleting and canvassing for Labour – particularly when the literature is so obviously side-lining the Corbyn leadership and when the activists on the doorstep are willing to collude with the demonization of this leadership and reassure them that this local MP is a more sensible character – poses activists on the left with a painful question about their own double-role, about the double-effect of their involvement. On the one hand, yes, this support for Labour – the largest possible vote, including securing seats against the Lib Dems as well as against the Tories – is absolutely necessary for any sustained fight-back against Tory policies. On the other hand, and at the same time, this kind of support is, let’s face it, support for the apparatus. In Withington we will succeed in returning an MP who has been openly hostile to Corbyn and who will continue to manoeuvre against the left of the party when he is elected. It will, for some, be seen as a vote for the ‘moderate’ kind of cuts politics pursued by the local Labour council. It is both things.

There is a dialectical contradiction at the heart of this election, uncomfortable and unavoidable, but that should not prevent us from being actively involved in it. Anyone who is for Corbyn should now be out on the doorstep for him, on the doorstep with the Labour Party teams; go on, do it for Jeremy. It is vital that the left supporters of Corbyn are active and visible in the campaign, active and visible as members of the Labour Party, and active and visible outside the party too. Theresa May’s snap election could well be the opportunistic gamble that failed, and now is the time for us to make sure it fails in the most dramatic way possible. We need more than voting, yes, of course, and we need more than simply voting now. We need to get that vote out as a precondition for building a real left Labour mobilisation against the Tories. Whether we have signed up as members of the Labour Party inspired by the Corbyn leadership or whether we still feel queasy about signing up to a party apparatus that continues to administer cuts through local councils and that is intent on blocking Corbyn, this is the moment to act.

You can read and comment on this article here

NSK’s Apology for Modernity

The NSK State Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale takes an unexpected and brave step, locating the NSK State in Time project in cultural-political context, taking responsibility for the resources IRWIN and other components of NSK have mobilised over the past years and giving response to some of the problematic aspects of the project. There has been a perpetual temptation on the part of some NSK State Citizens to imagine that this State in Time stands completely outside any geographical location. It is, after all, a State in Time as opposed to a State in Space. But this imaginary location of the State – and it must always necessarily be a location of some kind for it to exist – is symbolically anchored in a series of coordinates in which Western Nation States were born and through which Western States have offered themselves, sometimes imposed themselves as models for political organisation across the rest of the globe.

NSK State took shape first in Slovenia during the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, harnessing modernist motifs – including the reflexively disruptive notion of the retro-avant-garde – to reconfigure national identity through a fiction, a series of fictions which borrowed from the imagery of statehood to disturb that imagery. How could it not, in that very deconstructive response to the symbolic forms of Western national statehood, borrow from those forms, using the stones from the master’s house and so bit-by-bit reconstructing the architecture of that house in its own image? The political project was the dissolution of the appeal of States in Space, but the conceptual-artistic project entailed, necessarily entailed, a replication of forms of Western modernity, its ideological texture which was named ‘Modernism’. NSK Citizens come from around the globe, yes, but in unequal balance and, whatever the fantasy of its Citizens, with unequal power. This much was clear from the entry into the State of the Nigerian Citizens who had bought passports in the hope that they might thereby gain access to Europe, to the West, even we might say, to taste the fruits of modernity.

IRWIN well know that no ‘metalanguage’ can be spoken, that is, that there is no pure neutral external vantage point from which we might speak about politics or Statecraft. We speak languages, always within them, inhabiting those languages, repeating their terms, implicated in them. We never speak a ‘metalanguage’ which escapes language as such. It is this sense of their being a location inside rather than outside language, the language of modernity, that IRWIN were taking responsibility for when they issued their Apology for Modernity. This is not the empty apology of the West – the standard hypocritical game of the Western States – but an apology with consequences, consequences which we must trace through together with those we make ourselves accountable to, to those who are routinely excluded from the Western version of the modern world. So, when IRWIN call for NSK Citizens to vote for this project, I vote yes.

Ian Parker, NSK Diplomatic Passport-holder

You can read this on the nskstate site and comment on it here

Mad to be Normal

A new film about R D Laing should be something for the left to watch and learn from, about the politics of madness and the connection between different forms of liberation. But you won’t find any of that in Mad to be Normal which stars David Tennant reincarnated in some place called ‘the sixties’ as Dr Ronnie. Most of the action is set at Kingsley Hall, the alternative non-medical facility directed by Ronnie Laing in East London from 1965 to 1970, though a poster in Ronnie’s bedroom – that’s where he beds a composite character American student besotted with his work – is of the Dialectics of Liberation conference which took place in July 1967, so we are actually in a very compressed time-scale in Laing’s medical and anti-psychiatric celebrity career.

There is a heck of a lot of ‘acting’ going on in this film, and ‘mad’ people have often provided good fodder for thespians wanting to try out their skills at challenging notions of normality. The funniest moment is when two old thesps, Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon, have a muddled conversation, and it is funny not because they are good at playing crazy but because it is difficult not to imagine them chuckling away to each other during rehearsals. The shame is that, apart from Ronnie’s valiant efforts to spring one of his patients from a psychiatric hospital towards the end of the film, there is plenty of play-acting and very little actual resistance to power in the film. This makes it very different from the classic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, where at least there is rebellion by the patients themselves against the institution.

The sequence of vignettes – patients doing stereotypically mad things, Laing behaving badly, traditional psychiatrists enraged to the point of closing down Kingsley Hall – strip out the history of Laing’s evolution from undergoing medical training, to training as a psychoanalyst, realising that patients are more than bundles of chemical reactions, searching for alternatives, linking with other liberation movements, raging against the nuclear family, finding Eastern religion, and then celebrating the family again before dying of a heart attack while playing tennis in St Tropez. We have nothing of the work of the therapists who worked with an argued with Laing in the organisations he founded, and nothing of the legacy of those debates in the present-day radical training organisation the Philadelphia Association.

And, apart from the Dialectics of Liberation conference poster, there is nothing of the political context for that resistance against medical power. One of the characters in the film is a young Black man who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and subjected to Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – electroshock that has seen an over ten percent rise of use in the last ten years and which is given disproportionally to Black people (and elderly women). His parents bring him to Kingsley Hall, running the gauntlet of hostile locals who stand outside the main entrance taunting the residents. It seems odd that there is no mention at any point that this guy is Black, no discussion of the racism that pervades mental health services, but then, there is no mention of either racism or sexism or the conditions that cause distress.

At his most radical moments – and, yes, these were limited – Laing did, at least, begin to indict alienation under capitalism as a factor in distress, that’s why he was invited to the Dialectics of Liberation conference to speak alongside Stokely Carmichael and Herbert Marcuse. In this respect, he was very different from the right-wing libertarians like Thomas Szasz who argued both against psychiatric coercion and what he called ‘psychiatric excuses’. And Laing was much more cautious than those who were always on the left such as Franco Basaglia, founder of Democratic Psychiatry in Italy (Basaglia, who Laing, toward the end of his career, attacked for being an anti-family Marxist). Why the anti-psychiatry movement should have developed is a mystery in this film, with some suggestion, instead, that poor pathetic Ronnie never got over the death of his dad.

The film warns us that none of the characters depicted in the film have any relationship with actual people, living or dead, and it is tempting to apply that warning to Laing himself. Tennant does a good job on his hesitant drunk narcissistic drawling when surrounded by admirers and there are occasional hints of his charismatic humane approach to people in distress, but this Laing is a one-dimensional snapshot of a much more complicated figure in the history of resistance to mainstream medical psychiatry. I went into the cinema wishing I had taken packs of leaflets for the Asylum Democratic Psychiatry conference, but by the end I was relieved that I had not, for this was a film that does not do revolutionary politics any favours, for what it omits as much as what it portrays. This film evokes a mythical folk character, a time and movement, reducing them to caricature. This is one doctor to avoid.

If you liked the film or thought it was even worse, you can read this article and comment on it here