Post-Truth and Paranoia: Action, Reaction and Asylum

The last time round that the world was on the brink of self-destruction, the Marxist psychoanalyst Joel Kovel (and one-time candidate for the US Green Party presidential race) wrote a classic book on collective fear called ‘Against the State of Nuclear Terror’. The book was first published in the UK in 1984 linked to a Channel Four programme in the ‘Science in Society’ series (led by psychoanalytic Marxist Robert M Young) and then revised and republished in the US in 1999. Kovel’s analysis is still a useful starting point for thinking about what we are going through today with Trump as US President, but there are some nastier twists and turns in the last years that have made Kovel’s diagnosis of ‘paranoia’ even more relevant and even more dangerous to the left.

Kovel’s argument was that what seemed like the imminent destruction of the world through the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union induced a sense of helplessness and ‘paranoia’. This paranoia is very like the state of mind that psychiatrists think they can diagnose inside individuals – their sense that they are under threat and an attempt to identify enemies – but the difference is that the ‘state of nuclear terror’ was primarily a social process and it was then experienced by individuals who then shut themselves off from others in order to cope with that unbearable threat. Kovel, who was trained first as a medical psychiatrist before turning to psychoanalysis (something he then abandoned when he became a full-time political activist), thus turned psychiatry on its head. The problem did not lie inside individuals or their bad brain chemistry, but in political organisation.

Destructive political organisation, as in the times of the state of nuclear terror, led people to protect themselves and become more ‘individual’ than they had ever been before, and that ‘solution’ to distress was, of course, part of the problem. Kovel argued that the left needed to rethink its hierarchical forms of organisation and so find a way out of this individualist terrorised frame of mind. He argued for ‘affinity groups’ in which people could share their fear and work through it together, in the process discovering for themselves what the truth was about the world, about themselves and about forms of collective resistance. In this way they could understand the world through changing it.

This political analysis, and the options Kovel laid out as alternatives, relied on us taking a step back from the lies told by the United States military and the Soviet leadership. The arms race as a form of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) could only be tackled by declaring a plague on the houses of both sides, or, what was crucial, a plague on the masters of those houses. Truth would be something that would be discovered or constructed in the process of political mobilisation from the grassroots, and only this process would enable people to bit by bit trust each other as they started to trust their own responses to threat, to see those responses as clues to what was being done to them rather than as ‘symptoms’ of something wrong about them that could be patched up by a psychiatrist.

Now, in times of ‘post-truth’, 2016’s word of the year in the UK – a pernicious corrosion of trust in accounts of the world that then works its way into individuals so that they distrust others and distrust themselves – we are in a much more dangerous political situation. Trump is the symptom of that. Trump is the symptom not because he is a narcissistic or paranoid or bi-polar basket case – that way of approaching the problem will land us in a worse mess than we are in at the moment – but he functions as a symptom of ‘post-truth’ as a paranoid twisted universe of meaning that drives people into themselves away from politics, and then drives people mad as they lose any compass for finding their way around the world.

The attempt to ‘diagnose’ Trump using psychiatric categories is a dead-end, not only because we cannot possibly know what is going on inside his head – even a clinician working with him full-time over a long period of time would find that difficult – but also because the psychiatric categories we might grab hold of to reassure ourselves that we know why the real bad guy is really bad are themselves suspect and use of them will rebound and cut against us. Playing the diagnosis game de-politicises what is going on, and it reinforces the power of those, the psychiatrists, who deliberately or unwittingly (who knows, some psychiatrists do what they do with the best of intentions perhaps) divide us from each other and drug us and shock us to bring us into line with reality again, adapts us to bad reality, the reality that says there is no way of resisting, no way of changing the world.

To understand how potent ‘post-truth’ is to the Trump effect, and to the forms of paranoia it provokes across the political symbolic field, we need to understand where we are in historical-political context. The fall of the Soviet Union disoriented a generation of leftists, not only those who thought that Stalin, Brezhnev and Co. were the bees knees and that socialism was being built there, but also many leftists who had refused to accept that the Soviet Union had anything to do with socialism and that there needed to be a ‘political revolution’ to overthrow the bureaucracy that would be as far-reaching as a revolution in the West. The new regime in Russia under Putin has played on this disorientation, and in a very canny way, not by instituting a new regime of truth – not by the old fixed coordinates which would replace one symbolic reality of old socialism with a new one geared to the capitalist empire that now exists in Russia – but by corroding the ability of people to distinguish between truth and lies.

Putin has relied on a series of advisors to do this, and has succeeded in dissolving the difference between truth and reality by feeding into the public media, which is controlled by Putin, a variety of contradictory accounts of what is going on. The point of this, or at least let’s say the effect of this, is that ‘information’ as such becomes inseparable from propaganda, and people at some level know this. This is what we could call ‘the state of information terror’ in which the only reasonable response is paranoia. Now, leaving aside whether Putin interfered or not with Trump’s election as US President, this approach to ‘truth’ – that is, contempt for truth as a value as such – is something that Trump has made use of. Putin’s misogyny also chimes with Trump’s, as can be seen in the Duma motion to decriminalise domestic violence. It bears fruit first in the so-called ‘alt-right’ and then in Trump’s world of ‘alternative facts’. This a dangerous political process in which many of the left are so desperate for an alternative, for truth, that, even though they might even have come from political traditions that were once critical of the Soviet Union when it claimed to be socialist, they now unbelievably side with one ‘camp’ – the enemy of their enemy and then swallow whole all that the state propaganda machine in Moscow spews out. There is a twist here not only on Kovel’s ‘State of Nuclear Terror’ but also on neoliberalism as an individualising ideology that was beginning to take form back in the 1980s.

Neoliberalism rests on three elements that lock us into capitalism and then leaving us, it often seems and feels, with nowhere to hide. The shift to individual responsibility, first element, runs alongside the destruction of the welfare state, as the second element, and the imposition of a strong state, a third key element which is sometimes neglected in cultural analyses of neoliberalism. You have a check-list here of what Putin has done in Russia, and what Trump is doing in the US now. And that also means not only that many ‘alternative’ sites of information, the string of news outlets controlled by the Kremlin as a case in point, are devoted to misinformation, but also that we are each being driven into our individual selves, little mini-states, little prisons of the self; the uncertainty and misery becomes internalised, and the drive to internalise all that stuff is precisely part of the trap.

Kovel’s alternatives in the 1980s and 1990s relied on therapeutic work that would make the ‘affinity groups’ into places where the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ would be linked together again, the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ parts of our lives that are torn apart by our life under capitalism, and that are often, unfortunately torn apart by many left groups who don’t understand that capitalism is both a political-economic system and a ‘state of mind’ in which we are alienated from each other and alienated from ourselves. Today, with the destruction of mental health welfare services and the use of therapy by the state to force people back to work, it is all the more important to connect personal and collective distress through forms of self-organisation. It is not as if these attempts do not exist. The pity is that these alternatives are often ignored by the left. We can learn about these attempts to link the personal and the political from feminism, and also from radical mental health practice. There are hundreds of ‘Hearing Voices Groups’ in the UK, for example, that enable people to find alternatives to the pathologising victimising work of medical psychiatry. There are networks of activists, and ex-activists, for example, who participated in the formation of a ‘Paranoia Network’ which refuses medical diagnosis of what is, at root, a political problem. And there are many local groups operating as ‘mad women’ or ‘mad pride’ who reclaim their anger and channel it into protest. They do what the Socialist Patients Collective argued in Heidelberg many years ago, that we should ‘turn illness into a weapon’.

There are networks of the networks that the left needs to engage with, needs to participate in, such as the Asylum Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry which began as a news-sheet for psychiatric users and has, over the years, been central to the formation of the Hearing Voices Network in the late 1980s, to the Paranoia Network at a first national conference it facilitated in Manchester in 2004. Asylum, which was inspired by the movement Psichiatria Democratica in Italy in the 1980s, a movement which closed the medical mental hospitals, has organised many conferences in Manchester, the latest of which will be the 30-year celebration of the magazine in the ‘Asylum: Action and Reaction’ conference on 28 June 2017. Asylum over the years has consistently argued and mobilised against ‘the state of psychiatric terror’ that makes many people who want to speak out against the political manipulation that they experience keep quiet for fear of being medicated or locked up. There is truth in these experiences, not always direct and immediate, but, as is the case for all of our struggles against alienation, exploitation and oppression under capitalism, that truth can only be discovered, rebuilt through collective organisation.

This is a task for the left, a task that necessarily entails working with Asylum and with a range of other alternative mental health activist organisations. Being part of the June Asylum conference would take a step forward to building truth again against a paranoiac post-truth world.

 

You can comment on this article on the Socialist Resistance site where it first appeared.

 

 

The Labour Party

Total Recall from 1990 starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid, a ‘lowly construction worker’ who goes to Rekall Corporation in 2084 to have a brain implant to give him the memory of having been to Mars on a dream holiday, much cheaper than the real thing, and discovers that the memory is already there. The question that riddles the rest of the film is whether Quaid’s anxious uncertain sense that his troubled dreams of being on Mars that led him to Rekall were based in reality – whether he was always the leader of the resistance there as secret agent Carl Hauser – or whether this is a false memory that gives him the psychotic delusion that things are not as they seem, that he is more than he seems. There are three key hinge moments that the film, based on a short story ‘We can remember it for you wholesale’ by Philip K Dick, revolves around. The first moment is when Quaid learns that he may really already be Hauser, a fantastic discovery that tears aside the veils of reality as we know it and reveals another reality behind it that structures what we think we know. This is the Philip K Dick moment par excellence; there is another reality – it is not that another world is possible, it already exists. Quaid is, and always was, a secret agent and leader of the Martian resistance.

The second moment, a key scene in the film which elaborates a motif in Dick’s science fiction stories which is not actually present in the short story but true to the parallel reality themes throughout his work, is the moment of decision, of radical existential choice. This is the red pill moment (borrowed for the first Matrix film), one where our hero is faced with a forking path between two realities, one of which will spell disaster for him and everyone around him. But which? Quaid is told by the doctor that the red pill is ‘a symbol of your desire to return to reality’, and that if he swallows it he will fall asleep in the dream of being a rebel leader and wake up as what he was before. This second key moment is marked by hesitation and anxiety, and it is the bead of sweat on the face of the doctor that cues Quaid into this anxiety in the other; he shoots the doctor and his fight in and for his new reality resumes.

The third key hinge moment in the film is actually at the end, an unusually indeterminate and pessimistic denouement for a box-office bestseller – Total Recall was made on one of the most expensive film budgets of the time – when Quaid is sucked out onto the Martian planet surface after a reactor explosion and starts to suffocate. Perhaps he has successfully activated the reactor as he planned, however, and perhaps this has released oxygen into the atmosphere, and perhaps he lives. The final scene of the film though does not make this clear, nothing is certain, and it is possible that Quaid’s dream of a happy ending (like that in Brazil) is nothing but a fantasy he conjures up to console himself as he chokes to death.

The question now is whether Jeremy Corbyn’s three-line whip for giving Theresa May the go-ahead to trigger Brexit Article 50 whenever she likes, and on the Tories own hard-Brexit terms, will be seen as his own ‘red pill moment’. We already look back with some fond nostalgia at what 2015 gave us as the first key hinge moment for left politics and for Corbyn when he discovered that he was at leader of the Labour Party. But what then?

The British Labour Party grew to over half a million members after Corbyn was elected leader in 2015. This was an incredible turning point for a political party that had been founded in 1900, and had come to function as the British representative of social democracy, the British section of the Socialist International (the Second International which became a network of reformist and ruling parties trusted by capitalism to manage piecemeal changes that do not threaten big business or colonial power). The Labour Party first became a loyal governing party of the British State in 1924, and presided over a number of important progressive initiatives over the years when it took turns to rule, including the founding of the National Health Service, during which time its membership rose to over a million. This was before it folded under the pressure of capital and then enthusiastically, under Tony Blair, implemented neoliberal policies as the natural and most efficient heirs of Margaret Thatcher.

The election of Corbyn did not shift the Labour Party to the left, but rather opened up the gap between two parties; The Labour Party of the Members of Parliament and the apparatus linked to the bureaucratic leadership of the Trades Unions determined to prevent any shift to the left on the one hand, and the grassroots base of members of local Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated trades unionists who were dismayed at the abandonment of ‘clause four’ of the party in 1995 which, when adopted in 1918, had called for ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. 2015 saw something of a time-shift, then, a dramatic victory for the left and a complete surprise for Corbyn, a hard-working and trustworthy Member of Parliament for Islington North since 1983, who had barely made it onto the ballot.

This was like a dream come true for comrades in different campaigns who had seen Corbyn up to then as the patron saint of lost causes, and it was as if the Labour Party had now been shifted into some kind of parallel reality. Things were no longer as they had seemed. This is the moment, the first crucial moment, when this once lowly worker with the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union and then National Union of Public Employees suddenly becomes Party Leader, as if it was always destined to be so. It was as if Corbyn had bid to have the secret agent for the resistance fantasy implanted in his brain only to discover, like Quaid, that this historical memory was already there, that this revolution was something like what Walter Benjamin called ‘a tiger’s leap into the past’, redeeming the radical history of the Labour Party for today, reactivating it, turning it once again into what it might have been, a vital force against capitalism.

It was, for some on the left, as if the Labour Party was now completely different from the rotting corpse it seemed to be, as if it was no longer an old social-democratic reformist party with the establishment, but now with the resistance. Perhaps Corbyn was leading the resistance to austerity that would turn the tide against the Tories. At last, a popular trustworthy figure, charismatic in a strange anti-charismatic way – something that appealed to distrust of old political bureaucratic machine politics among new activists – was really willing to change the symbolic coordinates of the left.

Since 2015 the Labour Party has twisted and turned between two realities. In one, Corbyn has indeed been the force of change, redeemed his reputation as honest parliamentary back-bencher unconcerned with power, and spoken out for the National Health Service, for immigrant rights and a number of other radical causes. In the other, however, Corbyn has surrounded himself with some dodgy Stalinist and bureaucratic party-political advisors soft on the Assad regime in Syria, for example, and he has tried to maintain party unity by fudging the debate over the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system. Worse, Corbyn has sided with the establishment in Westminster against Scotland, repeating his pledge to win back seats for a British Party run from London, his dearly-loved Labour Party, from the Scottish National Party. Those who flooded into the Labour Party to back Corbyn, and even members of some of the little left groups who have joined, were already asking themselves what is dream and what is reality.

And then came Corbyn’s red pill moment. The red pill was a symbol, of a return from the dream to brute reality, of falling in line with the ‘will of the British people’ that had been lied to and duped into voting by a very narrow majority on a low vote for Brexit. Corbyn had, quite understandably, been lukewarm about campaigning alongside the devious and divided Tories for the European Union in the June 2016 EU Referendum, but he has ever since been egged on by crowds of little Englanders who have been willing to play the patriotic card, to pander to British nationalism in line with their own delusional fantasy that Brexit meant Lexit (a ‘left’ exit from the EU). Corbyn’s decision to whip his MPs to vote for Brexit in parliament is a disastrous mistake, feeding the illusion that ‘amendments’ in parliament would have any binding authority on Theresa May (the vote gave her personally the right to trigger Article 50) and then bizarrely proclaiming that the fight begins after the vote has taken place.

Some desperately claim that Corbyn’s cunning plan has opened the way to another vote after the Brexit negotiations are over, but then it will be too late. They pretend that our hero has not yet swallowed the red pill, that there is still time to spit it out. Some hope; disappointed supporters who have already avoided attending Labour Party meetings after signing up as members are already dribbling away. What matters are not secretive strategies but Corbyn’s role as symbol of the resistance, what this vote means for the left. The Labour right-wingers who broke from the whip are now being cheered on by some of those who voted for Corbyn as leader. Disillusion with the ‘Corbyn revolution’ is already corroding the resistance.

It is as if our hero has turned out not be to be Carl Hauser, rebel leader, after all and perhaps not even Douglas Quaid, lowly construction worker. The worst scenario, and this is how it seems to some of those gutted at his inept mistake in parliament, is that, after whipping his own Members of Parliament into giving support for a politically reactionary vote, Jeremy Corbyn whipped off his cuddly beard mask and we did indeed find Arnold Schwarzenegger underneath. If this is the case then we could indeed be taking a short cut to the third key hinge moment in this story when it ends badly for all of us. It is not merely that Corbyn returns to the back-benches and that the Labour Party becomes a traditional social-democratic party again, a return to business as usual, but that Brexit is triggered under the Tories in a nationalist frenzy. Then the British nation state can expel foreigners, crush the rebellious Scots, re-assert itself in the world, and we will all hurtle to nuclear war and choke to death, as if we were on Mars.

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

 

Alliance for Workers’ Liberty

A Canterbury Tale, a Powell and Pressburger classic from 1944, stars Eric Portman as Thomas Colpeper, a magistrate and gentleman farmer who gives improving cultural lectures to the community, but who is then revealed to be the ‘glue man’. This is the glue man who has been pouring sticky stuff into the hair of girls too friendly with the American GIs stationed in the fictitious little town of Chillingbourne near Canterbury in Kent. Colpeper’s rationale for doing this, he says when he is uncovered, is that this will frighten the girls away from fraternising with the outsiders and so glue together the community. In this film Colpeper is, in some sense, the obscene underside of the law, the smear on the community necessary to hold the good moral law in place. In spite of itself, the film reveals something of the dirty often secret violence that holds a clean wholesome community in place, a united community that in this film is configured as a very English ethnic community. It is Bob, an American army sergeant who gets off the train to Canterbury at Chillingbourne by mistake, who links up with Land Girl Alison (played by Sheila Sim) to track down the glue man after she is attacked on the first night.

A Canterbury Tale has become a cult favourite among a small group of devotees who visit Canterbury every year and declaim from the script, visiting Canterbury Cathedral at the end of their visit. They are then able to re-enact the final scene in the Cathedral where the British Army Sergeant Peter (played by Dennis Price) plays the organ after deciding not to report Colpeper to the police. Bob has discovered that letters have indeed arrived to his sweetheart, and Alison has discovered that her boyfriend has not been killed in the war as she feared. Just Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled to Canterbury, Colpeper says, ‘to receive blessing, or to do penance’, so Colpeper and his English community are blessed after having been glued together; the implication being that these desperate measures of deception were necessary after all, and the good that came from them will bear fruit.

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) popped into the headlines in 2016 as the mainstream press tried to track down evil Trotskyists who were infiltrating the Labour Party, but their supposed crime of supporting Jeremy Corbyn and taking the Labour Party further to the left is nothing to some of the strange alliances they have made since they were formed. In fact, while they were busy circulating petitions against a ‘witchhunt’ in 2016, they were keen to reassure their hosts that they are very loyal to the party, taking the opportunity to draw a contrast between their own fealty to the party apparatus and the dastardly operations of nasty ‘entrists’ who are not really concerned with unity at all. The AWL appear to operate as poachers turned gamekeepers, but things are more complicated than that; they are, at one moment, poachers who are willing to pretend to be with the gamekeepers, and, at the next, gamekeepers for the unity of a community who will do a little poaching on the side to glue things together.

The mastermind behind the AWL’s twists and turns as they burrow into organisations and then emerge triumphant with a handful of new members out the other side is Sean Matgamna who founded Workers’ Fight in 1967 after a brief faction fight inside the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), forerunners of the Militant Tendency and today’s Socialist Party (SP). He then took the group into Tony Cliff’s International Socialists (IS), forerunners of today’s Socialist Workers Party, after IS made a unity call in 1968 and invited different organisations on the revolutionary left to come together under one umbrella (theirs). The story that went the rounds is that IS had their eyes on the International Marxist Group, a fairly important organisation at the time which counted Tariq Ali as a prominent member, but instead of Tariq Ali they got Sean Matgamna. IS paid dearly for their mistake, and Matgamna’s Trotskyist Tendency was expelled from Cliff’s group in 1971, and buoyed up with new members scooped out during the adventure.

Unity was now the name of the game for Matgamna, but unity with a twist, which was that each and every other Trotskyist group that made the mistake of responding to the siren calls of his group in good faith got badly bruised. Unity, it seems, could only be brought about by a healthy dose of internal strife. It set a pattern for a peculiar ‘inoculation’ model of entrism in which Matgamna’s comrades join as very loyal members of the organisation they have targeted but then ally with part of the apparatus to attack enemies and so emerge as the winners at the end of the process. Workers Power made the mistake of fusing with Workers’ Fight to form the International Communist League (ICL) in 1975, for example, but things ended badly in less than a year. Matgamna shut down the ICL and its paper Workers Action in 1978 and launched Socialist Organiser, which styled itself as ‘the paper of the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory’. Now inside the Labour Party, they managed to persuade Alan Thornett’s Workers Socialist League (formed after the expulsion of Thornett and other comrades from the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1974) to agree to merge with them in 1981 and close down their own paper Socialist Press. It was another bad mistake, and the joint organisation lasted less than a year.

One of the crunch points in the faction fight that spat out the Thornett group again was the 1982 Falklands War and a response by Matgamna to the conflict which has been part of a pattern of adaptation to ethnic unity and notions of ‘community’ before the war and since. Before the Falklands War, Matgamna had already argued inside IS and after his expulsion, and against the anti-imperialist and Irish republication position of most of the British revolutionary left, that the Protestants of Ulster should be seen as a beleaguered community under threat with the right to self-determination. It was an argument that was in tune with some of his old comrades in the RSL back in the mid-sixties (and there are traces of that in the Militant and SP positions on Ireland). True to form, Matgamna argued that the Malvinas were not Argentina’s, but that the plucky Falklands Islanders did, just as Margaret Thatcher always claimed, have the right to self-determination.

The split with the Thornett group left Matgamna in charge to go on to found Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in 1992 after Socialist Organiser had been banned by the Labour Party two years earlier, and the AWL has been proving itself loyal to its host organisation ever since, and loyal to the different nationalist and ethnically-defined communities it has allied with. This is as well as having its newspaper operate as an outlet for Matgamna’s poetry, improving cultural material that is clearly an embarrassment for the poor AWL members who have to sell the thing. Would that Eric Portman were alive today to play the part.

The adaptation to ethnic unity and community identity took another turn when the AWL followed through the logic of Matgamna’s 1986 declaration that a ‘two-state’ solution was the only way forward for Israel, and for the defence of Israel. The AWL went on to forge a strong working relationship with Zionists in the Union of Jewish Students (more fool them, don’t they know it will end in tears), leading them to argue that Israel is not an apartheid state, a position very convenient for its loyal membership of the historically pro-Zionist Labour Party. This is a position that has drawn the accusation that the AWL are ‘revolutionary imperialists’. This particular alliance with Zionism also, rather predictably, led the AWL to publish Islamophobic trash, glue in the hair; an alliance, for unity and community, against outsiders. The AWL line, a weird perversion of the internationalist tradition they were born from, seems to be that community identity is an underlying good, and that a measure of deception and dirty work for the enemy will eventually result in something blessed for all.

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

 

Laos

The first advertisement over the walkway from the plane in Vientiane in January 2017 is for apartments in a gated community. Enclosure and privatisation are the watchwords in Laos now. Bounded by Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and China, this land-locked country is clearly open for business, and under intense pressure from its neighbouring states, as it has always been. The capital is Vientiane, a relocation of the administrative centre from the Buddhist temple complex of Luang Prabang, both of which suffered from invasions and levelling of religious sites over past centuries by the Vietnamese, by the Burmese, by the Thais, and then by the French and the United States.

Laos is the size of England but with about a tenth of the population. The seven million people have bravely fought invaders and oppressors, and suffered a history in the last half century or so that saw about 10 percent of the population murdered by the US military. The Lao people fought alongside the Vietnamese in the Indochina War, and then, with the defeat of the US in 1975, the Pathet Lao seized power, ruling the new Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) through the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) ever since. The history of that bloody struggle is still very much present, still claiming new victims day by day. Laos is, for the size of its population, the most heavily bombed country in the world, an incredible two million tons of bombs were dropped on it by the US between 1964 and 1973. Many of those bombs were targeted at the areas around the Ho Chi Minh Trail which runs down the country next to the Vietnamese border, and the Johnson and Nixon regimes were able to deny involvement for many years while US military bombing runs decimated the population (literally ‘decimated’ it). US planes on missions across Laos would also often offload remaining weapons on their way back to base over other parts of the countryside in order to save themselves the risk of landing with live munitions on board. 30 percent of those bombs dropped on Laos failed to explode and they are now under the surface, often in the form of small cluster bombs the size of a tennis ball, and sometimes as complete bomb casings. There are 300 casualties a year from ‘UXO’, ‘unexploded ordnance’, and an unending task of tracking them down, as portrayed in the Australian documentary ‘Bomb Harvest’.

Alongside Dervla Murphy’s 1999 travelogue, the most detailed history is by Grant Evans in A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between. A revised expanded edition of his 2002 book appeared in 2012 shortly before he died (by which time he had become enrolled as an academic advisor and member of the Lao Academy of Social Sciences), but was published in Thailand, not in Laos. Grant Evans was former editor the Communist Party of Australia newspaper The Tribune, and so makes some astute political comments about the pressures the Pathet Lao were under before they took power in 1975 and then the machinations of the LPRP as it renegotiated its relationship with the Vietnamese Communist Party, the Thai regime and with China. Evans doesn’t shy from the issue of prison camps set up after 1975 nor from the racist revenge treatment of minority communities that were unlucky enough to have members enrolled the US military’s dirty war. These two books by Murphy and Evans provide the primary documentary resources for this account.

From 1978-1979 the government, urged by Soviet advisors (of which there were about 1,500 in the country by that point), undertook a disastrous agricultural collectivisation programme. The programme was cancelled within eighteen months after regional authorities had produced local returns showing that there were nearly 2,500 collectives formed. Part of the problem was the resistance by local farmers, and part of the problem was the bureaucratic nature of the exercise; local officials were keen to comply with the demand, but they did this by simply reporting numbers of collectives rather than actually doing anything with them on the ground. Agriculture and forestry counts for about 43 percent of production, industry and construction about 32 percent, and the growing service sector, which includes tourism, counts for just over 25 percent. The regime has its eyes on foreign investment but is, as always, the junior partner.

For example, the front page story of the 9 January 2017 Vientiane Times was that ‘Four foreign companies ink deals for use of Lao satellite’, but it turns out that China, one of the countries that will lease the satellite, designed, developed and delivered it into orbit. This is actually a Private Finance Initiative in which Laos pays China, which controls the technology, and then China makes use of the product. The same issue of the paper has more glowing reports about energy generation, one of the growing industry sectors in Laos, which aims to complete industrialisation, undergo its own industrial revolution, according to the government, by 2020. Electricity now accounts for over 10 percent of exports in vast hydroelectric projects, including the 2010 Nam Theun 2 dam, coordinated with China and Thailand. Garment output accounts for just over 13 percent, and timber nearly 16 percent. Copper and gold still accounts for over half of exports, and these private companies are the most lucrative legal entities in the country. The timber export figures are particularly unreliable. The army was told to make itself financially sustainable in 1988, and has set up a number of private partnerships, many of which are illegal; there are vast areas of the country that are no-go zones for visitors guarded by army personnel functioning as paramilitary protection forces for logging operations which then smuggle hardwoods out of the country.

This problem of deforestation was documented by the intrepid traveller Dervla Murphy back in 1999 in her book One Foot in Laos; she feared then that the situation was getting worse, and it is. There were parts of the countryside she couldn’t access, prevented by local town chiefs and militia, and she was warned that it was dangerous because of remaining guerrilla operations by disaffected minority ethnic communities, particularly the (H)Mong who are still distrusted because of the role they played during the Indochina war, mobilised by the US forces for counterinsurgency activities. There is some truth that these were a threat, and a prominent right-wing counterinsurgency battalion commander, Vang Pao, active in the country before 1975, was still aiming to overthrow the government at the time Murphy travelled in Laos. There were attacks around that time on government forces; even, in 2003, attacks on tourist buses on Route 13 from the capital to the old capital Luang Prabang, in an attempt to undermine the regime. However, with readjustment of US foreign policy, and Obama’s 2009 declaration that Laos (and Cambodia) was no longer Marxist-Leninist and so no longer a threat to the free world, these remains of the counterinsurgency have pretty well evaporated. Some activists from the émigré (H)Mong community in the US were arrested a few years back for planning a coup in Laos, a message to them as to where US interests now lay. Even Vang Pao saw the writing on the wall, and sent a message from exile on 22 December 2009 that ‘we have to make a change right now’, proposing peace talks. A Lao Foreign affairs spokesperson replied, reminding him that he had been sentenced to death in 1975, and pointed out that any peace talks could only take place after the sentence had been carried out. Vang Pao died in January 2011. There are still old anti-communist voices, of course, and whether the new Trump regime will be more sympathetic to them than Obama remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely.

In fact, it transpired that the main danger to Dervla Murphy during her travels came from state and para-state forces guarding illegal logging operations. Murphy also described the development of new highway schemes that, alongside the dam projects which displace local minority communities and the logging and mining operations, are ‘industrialising’ the countryside in accordance with private profit. Murphy can be accused of romanticising traditional rural life in Laos – a criticism that has been made of her other travel books – but she actually is quite right about the problem with the way this particular kind of industrialisation is taking place. For example, the 13 January 2017 Vientiane Times reported on its front page that the go-ahead had been given by the Vientiane People’s Council for a new highway that will cut along the edge of the city next to the Mekong. The artist impression image of the road shows toll-booths, and even this paper – a private enterprise that effectively functions as a government mouthpiece – reported over the following days the fury of local residents who were being told to give up land in return for a cut of the profits from what was explicitly being sold as a ‘Public Private Partnership’. Vientiane Times copy is vetted and, as Big Brother Mouse, a literacy NGO project points out, all books have to be approved by the government before publication. There are innumerable corporate control mechanisms to manage different civil society organisations that might pose a threat to the regime; Buddhist groups are registered and monitored by the state, for example, and Christian organisations have to operate under the auspices of the ‘Lao Evangelical Church’. There are no democratic institutions. In the 133-member National Assembly elections for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, voters choose from 190 candidates selected by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. These 190 include four ‘non-party’ candidates from the ‘business sector’.

When the phrase ‘Public Private Partnership’ is used in Laos it is necessary to keep in mind that state sector employment has never been more than 1 percent (whereas it is roughly 23 percent in the UK and 14 percent in the United States). Conscription and the operation of local militia forces organised by the LPRP ensure the state apparatus runs without having actually to employ many people. What might easily be assumed to be state concerns, such as the ubiquitous outlets for ‘Beer Lao’, a quite nice lager made from rice, are actually all private; Beer Lao is made by Carlsberg, and the nearest competitor, pissy ‘Namkhong’, is made by Heineken.

The regime moved very rapidly after the first glimmerings of Glasnost, faster than many other regimes in the Soviet sphere of influence and behind the ‘Bamboo Curtain’. Explicit private finance initiatives were already in place in 1986 with the announcement of the ‘New Economic Mechanism’ – the final abandonment of any claim to be building a socialist or, still less, communist country – and in 1988 Laos opened up to foreign investors, shifting its focus from the Soviet Bloc to Thailand and then to capitalist China. This also meant loosening ties with Hanoi, and the remaining 45,000 Vietnamese combat troops were withdrawn from the country between 1988 and 1989. The LPDR withdrew support for the Thai Communist Party, hinted at repatriation deals of émigré activists with Bangkok, and this did the trick in facilitating new economic ties to the south, to Thailand. These possible extradition arrangements now extend to activists with the Thai Red Shirt movement. After shopping their old comrades in Thailand, the way was also open for deals with China (over extraction mining and hydroelectric dams). China repatriated 3000 Lao in 1997 that had been retained up to then as potential guerrilla irritants to the regime were they to be needed, and Jiang Zemin visited Vientiane in 2000, the first state visit by a Chinese premier to the country. A train-line between Vientiane and the Chinese border is on the books, and land enclosures have begun to seal areas of land and remove local inhabitants to make way for it. Photo-shoots of trade deals on the LPDR websites now show images of pudgy Lao government ministers in crumpled suits rather awkwardly shaking hands with their sleeker flashily-dressed Chinese counterparts.

There is a growing new middle class that races around in massive shaded-glass SUVs and which is linked to and protected by the regime. For example, the holiday town of Vang Vieng is popular not only with Australian, European and US back-packers but also with the wealthy kids of the apparatchiks in the capital. Most of the hotels are ranged along the right bank of the Nam Song river, but the left bank has become site over the last few years for unofficial restaurant sites which blare out heavy beat music through the night. The right-bank hotel owners petitioned the local mayor, who sent a letter of protest to the regional authorities to be forwarded to the capital. The left-bank rave sites were driving away guests unable to sleep through the noise, ruining their business, but the hotel managers have no recourse to the state. The cannot ask the local police, they said, because the police never act without a bribe, and in this case the police are reluctant to take action against the left-bank noise-makers because they are the sons and daughters of wealthy families in the capital linked to the regime.

The opening up of Laos for business, and correlative abandonment of any pretence of its aim to build a socialist society free of imperialism, has also been accompanied by the return of old ideological forms. For example, after 1975 there was an attempt to institute new forms of egalitarian nominations of identity. In place of the elaborate speech codes which respected and reproduced class and caste hierarchies, the regime promoted the use of ‘sahai’ (or ‘comrade’) as a form of address. A businessman back visiting Laos who had fled the country for the US in 1975, complained, while travelling on the bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, that things had changed in the country under the new regime, even that the language had changed so much that, he said, about seventy percent of it was now unrecognisable to him. What had been lost, he said, was the ‘depth’ of the old language, by which he meant that the markers of respect and contempt so that you know who you are speaking to in the chain of command weren’t now present in everyday speech. Even so, ‘sahai’ form has all but disappeared now, with ‘than’ (or ‘sir’) making a comeback, and also the ‘nop’ (the respectful bow of the head to superiors) returning.

Kaysone Phomvihane, leader of the Pathet Lao, died in 1992, and there were attempts after 1995 to build a personality cult around his image, but these attempts have failed. Memorial sites around towns with busts of Kaysone (busts manufactured in North Korea) have fallen into disrepair. It has been other statues of leaders that have been venerated with offerings of flowers on significant anniversaries instead, leaders like the historical royal personages Fa Ngum and Chao Anou, but also the more recent figure Prince Souphanuvong who worked actively with the Pathet Lao against the US but who marks some kind of lineage with the old monarchy deposed in 1975. Wealthy figures from the regime will now even appear in public as benefactors for hospitals or youth centres, making donations to good causes, symbolically re-enacting the monarchical forms they were supposed to have abolished.

A ceremony in December 2002 for the erection of a statue of King Fa Ngum (1316-1374) was attended by state officials, who clarified that this was not intended to signify, they said, ‘the revival of the monarchy’. Nevertheless, this event and the denial itself does indicate something of the way the regime is now stabilising itself. This stabilisation also entails recomposing relationships between the nation state and religion. Laos is a Buddhist country, but the monarchy was Hindu, with strong traces of Hindu imagery in Lao Buddhist temples. Now, if a new monarchical regime of any kind is to re-emerge it will be on the basis of a new compact with the Buddhists. The Pathet Lao and then the LPRP directing the LPDR had historically strong connections with the Vietnamese, with many inter-marriages in the course of the anti-colonial struggle up to 1975. That too is changing. Today it is rare to find leading figures in the party or state apparatus with Vietnamese partners, and there are rumours that it is difficult to obtain a powerful position in the economy or government if you are not ‘pure Lao’. (H)Mong youth in a literacy class in Luang Prabang complained of their marginalisation by the Lao. The Lao youth who participated in discussion wore full orange Buddhist robe.

There has been opposition to the regime since 1975, and not only from the disgruntled remains of the US occupation forces (of Vang Pao and the like). A ‘Social Democrat Club’ in Vientiane was formed and then rapidly suppressed in 1990. The Vice-Minister for Science and Technology, Thongsouk Saisankhi, complained that the LPDR was a ‘communist monarchy’ – a telling diagnosis of the problem – and called for a multiparty system. He was arrested and died in prison in 1998. In 1999 there were student protests in Vientiane which were violently suppressed. Since then, and with the fading of insurgent activities by the (H)Mong and other ‘tribal’ peoples, opposition has tended to shift to the NGO sector, to a quieter practical building of alternatives around questions of ecological sustainability and food security. But even these are dealt with viciously when they start to intrude on interests of corrupt private-state enterprises. For example, in 2012 environmental activists Sombath Somphone was abducted on a street in Vientiane, and hasn’t been seen since. His work in the Participatory Development Training Center that he founded continues. The complaints about his disappearance are bitter but cautious. Sombath’s wife Shui-Meng Ng, who still directs the project and works in the Saoban craft shop in Vientiane, emphasises that the work was not designed to be a critique of the regime but was on the basis of peaceful engagement with community issues. Dervla Murphy makes the interesting claim, in some of the later interviews in One Foot in Laos, that the matriarchal character of Lao culture has meant that while the male leadership of the state has collaborated with big business, the development of alternatives more in line with the original collectivist ethos of the Pathet Lao – a communist anti-imperialist and environmental ethos – is kept alive by the women in the apparatus organised through the Lao Women’s Union. Murphy’s book provides a more ecological and feminist account than Evans’ Short History of Laos, a good counterpoint to it.

The LPDR state flag (a white circle on a blue central blue strip edged top and bottom with red) is often accompanied by the LPRP (Pathet Lao) red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle emblazoned on it. So, there are symbols of the old socialism around aplenty, but little if nothing of the practice. The suggestion that Laos is a ‘deformed workers state’ or, more bizarrely, that, with China, Cambodia and Vietnam, it is one of four ‘socialist’ countries in the region is laughable, insulting to the people of Laos as well as to any historical political analysis of what is actually the case, damning with faint praise. One of the hotel managers in Vang Vieng shrugged hopelessly at the corruption of the local police apparatus and the futile petitioning for something to be done to protect their businesses. ‘Nothing can be done’, he said, we can only wait. ‘Well, you know’, he said, ‘it is a communist state’. Well, no, it is not. Laos is a capitalist country, a closed state locked into neoliberalism. There is, for sure, a history of struggle for communism here, but also a history of tragic failure, failure of a party that modelled itself on the Stalinist communist parties of the Soviet Union and China, and failure in a context of pressure that would have buckled even the most democratic and revolutionary of leaderships.

The British political situation: One response

There is a fundamental difference between what the leadership of many left groups puts at the centre of its concerns and those that are seen as central by the bulk of the British population and the main political parties. This leads to tactical and resource use errors. Of course the we have own focus which we have to prioritise which is not determined by majority public opinion and politics – but that wider situation, and our analysis of what it means, is central to our ability to intervene successfully around our long term objectives. The leadership of some left group is focused on Corbyn’s Labour Party whereas British politics are focused around Brexit and the Trump presidency. Despite our anti-Brexit focus around the referendum our new focus is resulting in our missing key aspects of the problems facing the movement. In practice anything to do with Corbyn, and the Labour Party as a whole, is being chewed up in both long and short term shifts in global and British politics – whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the forces grouped around him.

What is central to some groups’ strategy is what is referred to as ‘the Corbyn revolution’. They wish to see this revolution capitalised on in order to take the Labour Party to the left. The only way this objective can be supported is to take their organisation’s members and political focus into the LP, and build those forces which are part of the ‘Corbyn movement’ – particularly Momentum. This can be criticised from a number of angles.

First – it fails to understand the degree to which the working class movement has been hollowed out. We are not looking at how to intervene into a vibrant movement. There is no swell of working class consciousness, militancy and resistance. Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has served to bring to a head the party political aspect of this hollowing out. If Corbyn or the Labour Left are capable of leading anything then that is only a new broad left grouping. An unlikely event as they are mostly thoroughly wedded to the Labour Party. It is also unlikely as they appear to be incapable of organising anything other than an internal conflict amongst some of the usual suspects.

Second – it fails to understand the strength of competing political rivals. Blair is back with his reversing of the ‘historic’ split in British radical politics by his new centre initiative. This is not something for the Blairites in the LP (and probably confirms their defeat) but it could be part of a re-launch of a social liberal centre politics which will have enormous appeal to millions of anti-Tory, anti-Brexit young, multi-cultural working and middle class people. Brown is trying to overcome the split in the union and the economic divide in England with his constitutional convention, now backed by Scottish Labour. This is at least a programme aimed at refocusing the Labour party as a formally social democratic organisation.

Third – Corbyn’s victory has been over interpreted in Labour Party terms. Large numbers of radical people had the unexpected opportunity to vote in a party that they were organisationally and, increasingly, politically alienated from – but maintain an electoral loyalty to (as the only serious alternative). They were not queuing up to be activists in the LP – they were just carrying out a 38-Degrees tactic of electronic lobbying of an unusual (and more costly) kind. A small minority have become active but seem to be disappearing into LP routineism – elections and pointless policy making. Corbyn’s victory’s biggest success has been to bring matters to a head. The problem is that this has happened in totally adverse conditions – and routineism is not going to be a solution. A good lead by Corbyn would be very helpful – but is very difficult given the centrality of Brexit.

Tristram Hunt in his final speech as an MP when stepping down from Stoke Central said two things which we need to understand the significance of. First, Corbyn is out of step with Labour voters and second this separation ‘highlights the deep seated challenges which centre left parties are facing’. The core of his case is 1) that the centre left has lost its way because many working class voters have rejected the ‘politically correct’ (it’s a wonderfully succinct slogan to encapsulate popular alienation from social change and radicalism) inter linked, globalised world that is leaving them behind. 2) it accepts that these problems have been a long time coming. The irony that the coup MPs in the past attacked Corbyn for not arguing the case for the EU well enough, and now attack him for not bending to the key popular issue that won the vote for Brexit, does not seem to trouble them. At least Hunt is right in taking the Labour Party’s problems away from the immediate issue of the leadership of the Labour Party.

Brexit poses the possibility of a major shake-up in British political structure. All five main parties face major challenges which involve reinventing themselves. May is seeking to build a new Tory Party based on patriotic Britain, strong in a free trade world. The Liberal Democrats were cut to pieces by being in coalition with the Tories and are at a weak starting point for rebuilding a social liberal, pro-EU centre. The Labour Party (and most of the unions) has been caught out by being loyal to an EU that has not delivered for many people, and is rightly seen as an agent of liberal globalisation by those same people. UKIP, if it is to continue, needs to accept that its founders’ objectives have been achieved – the recreation of the Tory Party as the party of an independent UK – and shift themselves to primarily taking on the Labour Party. The SNP is now all over the place because the wheels are coming off everything – out of the EU and in the UK seems to be the future.

Whole swathes of the population are looking at new ways of voting and developing new political loyalties. Working class consciousness is weak and confused. This is where we have to start. What values and policies should we be arguing for a radical workers movement to adopt? We are at a point of re-founding of the workers movement. The fundamentally not radical ideology of the Labour movement has come off the rails. It has ceased to be able to defend and improve within capitalism. In many ways the far left and particularly the SWP have provided a left social democratic presence on the streets and the picket lines for 20 years, under the shadow of which actual social democracy has withered away – courtesy of New Labour as much as anything else. Left groups in unions are based on bureaucratic shells and manoeuvre. Committees are empty talking shops.

The left has not been able to make any headway in providing an alternative to liberal globalisation. This has meant people looking elsewhere for pragmatic solutions. We now have to deal with a situation where all the non union progressives are looking for a way to overthrow the referendum result. At the same time a majority of union members have no interest in overthrowing that result – to say nothing of the unorganised working class. The link up of these two groups as Labour Party internal electors is what put Corbyn where he is – and their coming apart will be his undoing.

The consequences of all this are very significant for how we use our very limited resources. All into the Labour Party to defend Corbyn as leader is not the way forward. Our ability to play any role in this internal fight is minimal anyway. If comrades can be members of local LPs that are outward looking then that can be useful. But the fight lies in taking the resistance that made Corbyn’s victory out into the wider working class – this does not require an exclusive base in the Labour Party, though it probably does require some of its base being in existing working class organisations.

Momentum appears to have failed on all counts – both as an internal LP radical group and as broad umbrella of struggle. We have to accept that a big part of the problem is the nature of the English far left – its capacity to reduce anything it touches to a self destructive in-fight is totally demoralising for sane comrades and drives away many who would be interested in what the left has to offer.

At the level of political programme we have to address two main problems. One is how to re-link working people to working class organisations. The other is how to link up with those who had the same voting line as us in the referendum who now see the political left-centre as the place where radical social values exist. The labour movement is now permanently divided on Brexit. This is why everybody knows defending the NHS has to move centre stage as we can do that without mentioning the EU. But Brexit is going to be at the centre of electoral and parliamentary politics for years to come and could easily destroy the Labour Party. A consequence of Trump’s victory will be a global fight back by liberalism (with the Liberal democrats and Blair being the British arm). They are not going to give up on their global project and are already counter attacking vigorously. This is just the beginning of a four year struggle which starts with dealing with Le Pen in France. It means that the people leading the fight back against Trump are going to be the social liberals – this will not an easy time for developing the strength of socialist forces. Indeed Coyne’s campaign in Unite is quite compatible with liberal politics, they see unions legitimately in the work place and peripheral to politics – old Democratic Party style.

To play any role with our tiny resources in any of this we cannot become deeply embroiled in the internal events in the Labour Party. We have to focus on other tasks which have longer term objectives. We have to produce propaganda that recognises and analyses the depth of the working class political crisis. We have to put forward proposals for how this crisis could be confronted. We have to reconstruct broad campaigning organisations across the movement.

We have to accept that the most effective way our extremely limited resources can be used is in developing a class struggle analysis and seeking to draw revolutionary Marxists around it and winning new people to Marxism. This can only be done by participating where we can in struggles that are going on and participating, without liquidating ourselves, in any organisation that is campaigning. Our central resources have to up the importance of party building. Tactical flexibility on the ground locally, combined with theoretical and strategic consolidation as the basis for recruitment, will be the only viable option in the coming period.

CJ

 

Unite for Ian Allinson

We should back Ian Allinson for General Secretary of UNITE. Backing Len McCluskey will bring some sour smiles of derision from the bureaucrats around him at pitiful attempts by revolutionaries to draw him to the left, and contempt from a new generation of union activists who are now willing to fight for something different. Deals with the ‘almost left enough for the moment’ union officials are now increasingly completely out of tune with the left politics we should be engaging with. This is all the more important in UNITE now as a union that is drawing in community activists as part of organised labour campaigns. And these deals will fail. We know this, so why on earth fool ourselves as well as those we try to draw into left politics otherwise? McCluskey’s record is not at all as someone who will bravely speak out for Corbyn, but someone who is clearly watching which way the wind blows, and he will jump ship from the Corbyn camp as soon as it is necessary. He has already pushed Corbyn over Trident and restrictions on free movement in Europe, pushed to the right. A vote for him will be a vote for one of Corbyn’s hangmen, doing Corbyn no favours. Ian Allinson, on the other hand, despite his organisation RS21s mistaken stance on Brexit, is way more progressive on that question than McCluskey, and backing him would be way better than siding with the little patriotic Stalinists and bureaucrats who are whispering in Corbyn’s ear. Ian Allinson was one of the most prominent open voices to speak out against the sexual violence scandal in the SWP, and speaks not only for a left agenda but also for a feminist one in union politics. He is a respected activist, and trade union fighter in Fujitsu for many years, and support for him now in Manchester is going to be seen as a test for those on the left. http://www.ian4unite.org/

 

Socialist Workers Party

Falling Down spins out a desperate narrative of confusion and mania, one man’s response to increasing alienation, an increasingly crazy and violent response that feeds on that alienation to compound the problem rather than finding a way through it. Michael Douglas excels in this film, which was released in 1993, playing Bill Foster, a defence engineer estranged from his wife (who has taken out a restraining order forbidding him contact with both her and their daughter) and cracking. This is a man who wants to be in control but who is losing it. There are two key moments in the film that crack open the fragile ideological carapace of Western capitalist culture, revealing something of the hopeless pain for individuals at the heart of it, and showing how these individuals are incited to thrash out at those who should be their allies rather than against the wretched political-economic system that has driven them into this mess.

The first moment is the first crack, the first moment when Foster falls. He is in a long traffic jam in the highway, people are getting agitated, his car air-conditioning breaks down, and Foster loses it, abandons the car and spends much of the rest of the film taking out his anger on those who frustrate him. This is a man who is blocked from getting what he wants, and immediate goals are configured as things he must attain if he is not to be a failure. He is angry, understandably angry, but his energy is channelled in destructive and self-destructive ways rather than in a collective process through which he might learn from those around him who are also oppressed. He acts alone, to solve the problem that he finds himself in, isolated from others, and that increases the problem. Foster trashes a Korean convenience store with a baseball bat after the owner refuses a request for change, and in a fast-food restaurant he shoots up a phone booth after being unable to get access to call his wife. Foster is by now caught up in racist assaults – congratulated by a white supremacist in a military surplus store – and this makes him all the more agitated.

The second moment cracks open this complicity with the violent events of the day, the escalation of a situation Foster was himself trying to escape. Before he is shot dead after pulling a water gun on a policeman, he stands – and at that moment he falls, repeats the process of moral failure, of falling down – and voices his rage and incomprehension that he is actually in some way responsible for the carnage. This is the moment when he bewails the inability of the others to understand what is happening to him, what, ‘I’m the bad guy!’ I help to protect America he tells the policeman, I did everything they told me to, they lied to me. It is surely the most stunning moment in the film, repeating in miniature the incomprehension of the United States as invader and cause of carnage around the world; it is merely protecting itself, its leaders say, amazed that anyone could see otherwise, bewailing this situation by asking, what, ‘I’m the bad guy?’.

Falling Down stages a symptom of masculinity in crisis in conditions of alienation and the mistaken attempts to seal off the self as a solution to that crisis. It is a failure that is indicative of the lives of many men, and also of many organisations and even ‘opposition’ groups under capitalism, even of groups that aim to overthrow capitalism itself. This is the peculiar and sad symptomatic predicament of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain in recent years, a group mired in complaints about sexual violence, and responding to those complaints with increased confusion, denial and attack on those who raise the question again. The facts of the case are well-known – accusation of rape against SWP national secretary, investigation committee reporting to annual conference that case is not proven, mass resignations – and the increasing isolation of the SWP is very understandable, oscillating between some shame on the part of some of its members who have dared to challenge the party leadership over what happened (with many leaving and setting up shop elsewhere in new groups, like RS21, that treat feminism as a resource rather than an enemy) and defiant claims that what is past is past and that now it is time to move on. In some cases that demand that we move on has itself been accompanied by threats typical of an abuser who has been caught out; shut up, it is time to move on, or else.

What is at issue here is the longer history and mode of functioning of the SWP, a party that was founded in 1977 out of the International Socialists founded by Tony Cliff in 1962 out of the 1950 Socialist Review Group after their break from the Fourth International (over the question of the nature of the Soviet Union and consequent responses to the Korean War). One of the enduring characteristics of the so-called ‘Cliffite’ tradition which was carried forward into the stereotypically male leadership of the SWP (and also into some of the groups that it spawned in many purges and splits over the years) has been control, and the other is urgency, urgency bordering on mania. SWP leader Alex Callinicos, a new role for Michael Douglas after Tony Cliff, runs the International Socialist Tendency from London. Yes, they are good at organisation and speed of response, but …

Anyone who has been in the SWP or subjected to their antics in the front-organisations they use to recruit members, ranging from the Anti Nazi League (a success) to Stand up to Racism (tinged with hypocrisy after the SWP support for Brexit) – sign a ‘petition’ on one of their stalls concerning any one of a number of current issues and you will find yourself on their recruitment mailing list – will know well that they are control freaks of the worst kind. The organisational rigidity of the party apparatus – prohibition of internal opposition tendencies outside of the short pre-conference discussion period, for example – is also evident in their pre-meeting caucusing and then intervention and elections for positions in the campaign leaderships. Those non-members who are willing to serve as padding to show that the front is ‘open’ quickly discover that they are just treated as useful idiots if they speak out against the prescribed direction of the campaign.

And anyone who has been in and around the SWP at campaign meetings and demonstrations that they don’t directly control will know that, not only does every party member repeat what they have read that week in their newspaper, which is tedious enough, but the solution always amounts to ‘building a massive movement’ against x y or z, and increasing our activity. A situation that is a ‘crisis’ is always, you will hear members claim, turning into a ‘disaster’ (or vice-versa). There is manic optimism in practically every intervention, the idea that if only you do this or that (in line with SWP priorities) you must surely succeed.

The problem with mania is that it expresses a fragile and uncertain grasp on reality, so that when things shift from optimism to pessimism, there is a long way to fall, and the fall-out often has violent consequences for everyone around. The SWP response to the crisis over sexual violence in their organisation was to shut everyone else out and to try and deal with it themselves – big mistake – and then to blame anyone who pointed to their own complicity in the mess they had created for themselves. That’s what they still say if they are confronted over their mistakes; what, ‘I’m the bad guy?’ They don’t get it, that they are part of the problem, that they repeat and reinforce alienation and patriarchal domination in capitalist society and in so much of the far left.

 

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