Book review 2021: Five old crackers

Five books Ian Parker liked a lot and recommends you read too.

I read these five – well, actually nine because two of these are trilogies – which were all published way before the plague year, but are thought-provoking and really worth reading

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin was first published in 2008, with the full approval of the Chinese state. It is ‘hard sci-fi’, tracking forward 80 million years in this and the two following books in the trilogy – The Dark Forest and Death’s End – and spelling out along the way the ambitions of current regime and ideological representations of what ‘dark forest’ it faces in the world. This is reactionary breath-taking stuff, but compelling.

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E Butler is a speculative fiction trilogy published between 1987 and 1989 attentive to race, gender. The three books – Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago – trace an encounter of humans with aliens who are completely immersed in nature, and the fascination and repulsion at what that immersion might entail. There are themes here that Butler explores in other books, of our current hatred of what is different to us. Read all her work.

Passing by Nella Larsen was first published in 1929 and released as a film this year, with the main characters dealing in different ways with race segregation, reflecting issues Larsen faced in her own life, and making life-style choices that involve ‘passing’ not only as White but as middle-class. The film captures well the tone of the beautifully-written book, a reflective interiorised sense of racism, self-sabotage and a little misplaced resistance.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch was first published in 1954. Murdoch, who was a member of the Communist Party during the war, and who wove her philosophy into her novels, included in this first novel evocations of life in London and encounters along the way with Lefty Todd, leader of the New Independent Socialist Party. The ‘net’ that she gets under is the web of language, and she does enable a few hours of escape from this world as you read the book.

The Cave by José Saramago was first published in 2000, and is included in the collected novels e-book which you could just go through, they are all great. Saramago, a member of the Portuguese Communist Party, tells his stories from the point of those who labour. This haunting novel is a superb example, with descriptions of creativity, alienation and the encounter with a corporate world that cares nothing for us. Read all his work.

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What hope for the Labour Party in 2022?

The Labour Party apparatus and parliamentary representatives, and many organised right-wing local councillors, are now clearly in control. They were biding their time under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and actively working to sabotage the chances of a radical government coming to power, albeit with a manifesto less radical than that of the party in the 1960s.

Now some in the party are embarrassed by their seeming saviour Keir Starmer – former Director of Public Prosecutions who declined to pursue the legal case against police who murdered Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 (just one telling indication of where Starmer’s loyalties lay and the direction he would take the party) – but they are unrepentant about what they have done to our hopes, real hopes of change, and triumphant in most local constituency parties.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested Starmer, and his abject agreement with nearly every twist and turn of the Johnson government has been of a piece with a return to business as normal in the Labour Party. As with much else, the pandemic has intensified every form of inequality, oppression and abuse of power. Inside the party, the opportunity opened up by Zoom has been seized; the left has been silenced while each and every policy gain made under Corbyn has been ignored or rolled back. What hope is there for those who insist on staying in the party now?

Rejoining, rejoicing

I rejoined the Labour Party in 2017 after actively campaigning for a Corbyn-led government in the June General Election. I canvassed alongside new comrades, some of whom had stayed in the party during the Tony Blair years gritting their teeth and now delighted by the new leadership, some of whom had left, like me, and rejoined, and some who were enthused by the possibility of something different, something more radical happening, rejoicing at this amazing revival of this radical tradition of the organised labour movement.

Many of those who signed up as members never canvassed, or came to meetings, and those who did quickly drifted away, appalled by the bureaucratic machinations that were eventually to see Corbyn’s final defeat in 2019. The ‘Corbyn movement’ was largely outside the Labour Party, with many Corbyn supporters never looking to the Labour Party as such. However, something happened inside the party, and it was worth being there, and putting energy and time into the possibility of radical change.

Most Corbyn supporters inside the party welcomed the newcomers and the rejoiners, and worked with those still outside. There are activists inside the party now who have turned outwards, linking with social movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too and supporting strikes. That activity was key, the sign that something could be built from Corbyn’s unpredictable election as leader in 2015.

Now, as we are asked to deliver 2022 calendars and other party literature, asked to support left councillors who are hamstrung by threat of disciplinary procedures and frightened of losing what toehold they have on power and in some cases their livelihood, we face a dilemma. The balance of forces in the party is against us in most parts of the country, certainly in the largest and what is touted as the most ‘successful’ constituency of Manchester Withington, where loyal Starmerite MP Jeff Smith, Shadow Minister for Local Government, has an unassailable 27,905 majority.

Expulsions, pressure

Jewish members of the party, including in Manchester Withington, have been expelled for speaking out in solidarity with Palestine or been subjected to a ‘notice of investigation’. One of them, an elderly activist, member of Jewish Voice for Labour has written to Jeff Smith asking his MP to take action over the ‘persistent personal harassment’ he has suffered, and carefully dismantled the case against him. Starmer and his lackeys claim to speak for Jews, but promote an antisemitic witch-hunt against those who defy stereotypes of what a Jew is supposed to look like, with support for Israel now top of the list.

Prominent BAME activists in Manchester have already left the party, claiming that endemic racism as well as hostility to an activism that counts made them a target for bullying, for discipline and exclusion. There is a statement of solidarity for former councillor Marcia Hutchinson circulating inside the Manchester party after the most recent revelations about racism against her, and some on the left have bravely agreed to sign it. (The statement with names supporting it is not yet public – we need to get the go-ahead from other BAME left members first.)

Meanwhile, other party members are cautious, are staying quiet, not yet signing; Councillors anxious about their jobs, prospective candidates not wanting to damage their chances of being selected, and others wondering whether speaking out now will be unwise. They carefully weigh up what they should say, which is part of the problem. To be clear, we are working alongside perpetrators of racism against Marcia, perpetrators of crimes against the labour movement.

Many of our comrades have left, some drifting away from politics, some working with the Green Party. That is not a bad choice, an understandable choice, and those on the left inside the party need to stay in comradely joint activity with those on the left outside. Many have left if they have not been expelled, and many more will follow. Now, when they voice their qualms within closed left forums, they are told that the Labour Party is the only field of battle, told that they must not give up, that there is a choice between sulking and staying and that they must not let the party have the satisfaction of having people abandon this internal fight; that is a false choice that poses what we are up against now wrongly and, despite its own claims, moralises against those who have very good reasons for leaving.

Choices, tactics

There is an internal fight, but it is mostly secret, behind closed doors; the fear of speaking out is all the more powerful when combined with fear of being seen as disloyal, going public. As the right in the party tightens its grip, the choice the left who stay in the party has is stark. There is an outside chance, a slim possibility that something like the Corbyn moment may happen again – it is extremely unlikely, and the party apparatus is ensuring that it will not happen – but we do not need to stay inside the Labour Party to support that, if it happens.

Wherever we are, inside or outside the party, as ‘paper members’ or constituency delegates from trades unions or working with other progressive forces, in campaigns, social movements or even in political parties outside, we need to support each other, keep the activist networks alive, ready for that moment or any other moment to work together. There is a wider field of battle.

If we are still inside the Labour Party, as are quite a few members of Anti-Capitalist Resistance – an organisation in England and Wales that I now give most of my allegiance to – our time and energy needs to be conserved, our support conditional. Already, there are clear statements by many on the left that they will not support candidates in elections who do not speak out about racism or who break strikes. The choice is more difficult when there are local candidates who are still on the left, those we do want to support. The conditions we place on support, and the conserving of our time and energy for other better causes is then more necessary, sometimes personally painful.

In the case of Manchester, to give just one instance, one that does not directly translate to other places, the left is blocked, and drained, helpless. It needs to say so to anyone who is called on to vote Labour and explain why, explain why participation in the Labour Party now is with a left that is resisting the party rather than simply cheering it on.

When the balance of forces is so against us, on balance we have to recognise that giving out party literature when there is no opportunity for explaining where we stand, and even working for a left candidate – a candidate whose leaflets are usually written by the right or self-censored – is effectively to support Starmer, not to challenge him.

Public declarations of support for the Labour Party where there is no qualification, no hint of disagreement with the right, no indication that there is a left still alive inside the party, are exactly that, useless; effectively, they are then declarations of support for the politics of the labour right, one that is virulently hostile to progressive political action while hounding out the best, most disobedient comrades.

There will be rare exceptions, and then we should encourage everyone, inside and outside the Labour Party to vote for candidates who have taken clear consistent public positions that defy Starmer and the local city council apparatus. Obedience, deliberate and cynical or tacit and silent, is not good enough now, and works to confirm the reactionary politics of a party that is increasingly disconnected from the working class, a party that colludes with exploitation and oppression. There is no longer anything sacrosanct or even necessarily progressive in always everywhere voting Labour in this disunited kingdom.

A good many left activists who are still hanging in there already know that the real struggles are elsewhere, not in futile squabbles with a right wing enjoying every victory, occasionally humouring the left by voting for motions that have been timidly and humiliatingly watered down to be almost meaningless.

I reckon it is time to be a fair-weather friend, taking the occasional opportunity for debate and connection with those who know that things are bad in the party, attending perhaps, speaking if possible, and voting. If I am expelled, so be it. For the left who remain, this is a reminder of the overarching struggle, not a call for resignation but a call for conditional support and the harnessing of our energies to other, better things than to buttress the power of a Labour Party apparatus that poses no radical challenge to capitalism in 2022.

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Don’t Look Up: The planet is already burning

Don’t Look Up was released on Netflix on 24 December, and has already met with strongly divided reactions, either because it is a feel-good holiday movie or because it is not. These are reactions which kind of miss the point, because it is a satire.

First, some random things to look out for in Don’t Look Up: it is cool to be a young scientist with a nose-ring and dyed red hair (and, ok, better if you look like Jennifer Lawrence, also signalling here Hunger Games narratives); the scientist played by a tubbier than usual Leonardo DiCaprio does not take off his glasses (normally the case in films in which the scientist has to lose their specs when he goes into action mode); the female US president is not a mere token but an active force (a bad Hillary Clinton figure played well by Meryl Streep); and one of the villains is a Brit (Mark Rylance stirring in some pertinent critique of big tech). Plot spoiler – the earth dies in this one.

What to avoid

Satire has to avoid a number of traps, which this film does at points – at points, what can you expect from a multimillion dollar production on Netflix. It should avoid collapsing from a ‘modern’ quite rationalist critical approach to what it depicts into a ‘postmodern’ pastiche. Postmodern pastiche mixes up high and low culture and, crucially in the political realm, muddles the difference between fiction and reality so we are presented with a flat entertaining surface which tells us nothing about the world, playfully unhinges us from any grounding in reality.

In many ways and at many points, this is ‘about’ something, not simply a media spectacle. This is not merely the kind of ‘spectacle’ which lures the viewer in so they are passive viewers, the kind of alienating spectacle that Anti-Capitalist Resistance has been diagnosing through the last year. This film is, among other things, ‘about’ climate change, and corrosive ideological government and alt-right fuelled scepticism. There are many poignant images in the film intercut with the narrative, of nature, of life, and of love. This is the planet under threat, from within, and not only from some comet about to strike in six months.

Satire also has to avoid soothing its audience, turning real political issues into mere entertainment and letting us relax. The name for this process in the spectacle is ‘recuperation’; the absorbing and neutralising of radical ideas so they just become part of the mix, and we are made passive, mumbling to ourselves – in line with 12-Step Programme treatment – ‘it is what it is’. This is what it is, but it is more. There is a great moment where the White House chief of staff tells a Trumpite crowd that they are the workers, and they need the rich elite, and together, rich and poor need to unite against ‘them’ (and he gestures to the left, a move that works until one of the crowd does look up, and sees the comet heading for them).


Satire cuts into what it shows us, makes us think. It is not balanced or nuanced, and, as we had to learn when we were subjected to ‘satire’ on the BBC that was mainly directed against Jeremy Corbyn before the pandemic, it cuts all ways. Yes, this is sickening, but a divisive reaction – let us say, dialectically, that one divides into two – and is no bad thing. This film opens up a debate, and if we look at which way the debate about the film goes we also learn something.

The Lib Dem / Labour Right broadsheet The Guardian hated the film, and bizarrely devoted three articles to attacking it, accusing it of not really dealing with the climate crisis that it hinted it. The ‘Below The Line’ (BTL) comments on one of the most spiteful reviews (by the usually liberal serial plot-spoiler Peter Bradshaw) were headed by one picked out by the Guardian editorial team, one that was also negative. Rolling Stone accused it of being ‘a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire’, while the Wall Street Journal said it ‘might have been great fun if it had been executed with some respect for our intelligence, and for the power of sharpshooting satire, rather than glib nihilism’, the Globe and Mail called it ‘a messy, smarmy assault’ and the Hollywood Reporter claimed that it was ‘a cynical, insufferably smug satire’. Most of the BTL comments on the Guardian website were positive though, bewildered by the negative response of their newspaper.

Why would the liberals hate this film if it is merely a liberal soothing postmodern pastiche designed to put us to sleep? Perhaps they hate it because woven into the attempt by scientists – even, mockingly from ‘Michigan State’ as a lower-tier college – to alert us to what is happening above us (and around us) there is critique of corporate and governmental greed.

Some friends responded online by pointing out that the bad president dies and that the Trumpites in the film are stupid. This is in line with ideology, not cutting against it, and, yes, that is true, as is the point that this is concerned only with the reactions of the US. A Mexican comrade argued that this is reproducing pernicious representations of the world in which other nations – China and Russia are barely mentioned in the film – are sidelined. This is, we might say ‘white first-world satire’. Not only that, the science was ‘wrong’; the algorithms used by the BASH corporation could not work, and the very idea that sending missiles up to stop the comet is absurd.

But satire of this kind does not directly represent the reality it is focused on. We cannot measure what it says about the world against what we really know. That is beside the point. Yes, actually, we know well that sending up missiles will not blow up a comet heading to earth, but that is exactly what the US government plans to do in cases like this, and this precisely why it cannot deal with global ecological destruction that comes from ‘within’ – within the capitalist system – rather than from the stars.

I’m not saying that you should love this film, just that you should see it. You may hate it as much as climate change, and that may spur you into more action. Fine. You might object that it sanitises what is happening, but whether you like it or despise it, this film reminds you that the planet is burning, that you need not only look up. You need to look around at this world, at what is happening now, and use the spaces of satire to think, energise yourself and do something about it.

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West Side Story again

Ian Parker took himself to the Regent Cinema in Marple to see if this was any good.

A question on Google flashes up asking whether West Side Story, recently remade by Steven Spielberg and on general release is ‘based on a real story’. Nearly so; it reworks Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – the tale of star-crossed lovers from rival families – and transplants it from Verona to New York, the Upper West Side of Manhattan.


The 1961 film followed a 732-performance run on Broadway and then tour of the 1957 musical (and 1958 British production that opened first in Manchester), with the rival families now configured as gangs, the White ‘Jets’ and Puerto Rican ‘Sharks’ clashing after the thrilling finger-snapping prologue orchestral number.  

Rita Moreno played Anita, and was the first Latina actress to win an Oscar; the film was a smash hit and was followed by scores of stage revivals. The dance format for these productions was strictly controlled by the rights holders for the musical, though relaxed, with permission, for the performances in the round at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in 2019.

The story has been reworked countless times in other productions, including the zippy 1996 Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet that reset Shakespeare on Verona Beach, though most of the film was set in Mexico City. Natalie Portman was ditched from the role of Juliet because she looked too young – she was 14 at the time – and the part was taken by Claire Danes, and Leonardo DiCaprio made his film career from it, as Romeo.

Now, in the 2021 Spielberg version we have new choreography, with Ansel Elgort as Tony, Rachel Zegler as Maria, and Anita’s part is now taken by Ariana DeBose. But, a reminder of time passing perhaps and the updating of the film, Rita Moreno is back, now as ‘Valentina’ and replacing the 1961 film character of ‘Doc’, mentor to the two lovers. Black and Irish New Yorkers, who supply the gun, are clichéd parts, as are the tenement buildings with washing hanging to dry.

Does this work? The 1961 film riffed on racism, displayed it, commented on it and challenged it. It could still be accused of reducing gang warfare to poignant and then tragic dance sets, turning systemic racism and the colonisation and emigration of Puerto Ricans into tear-jerker sentimentality, wiping away real struggle and leaving liberal audiences with a feel-bad experience they could then easily process into hummable tunes on the way home.


Sixty years later, in the context of sustained anti-racist critique of material oppression and ideological denigration, Spielberg really had to add something to the mix. He did, but made it worse. The ratio of songs to script was reduced, and we were subject to long passages in which characters from different backgrounds talked about how they were brought up to dislike people who were ‘different’, while there was a knowing wink to the audience at the beginning with a reference to property developers benefitting from the conflict between communities as they tore down the neighbourhood.

One of the most horrible narrative additions was where Tony, who had been in prison for a year, said he had used the time well to look deep inside himself and come to realise that he should not hate others who were different from him. So, the message is that the law is benign and prison has good effects.

Woven into the liberal representation of racism – which had nothing about institutional racism and plenty about irrational dislike and conflict between groups abstracted from context – were themes of sexism, more so than in the original. Anita in this version is sexually harassed by the Jets, but almost raped. Poor Rita Moreno – who has the function of reminding us by her presence that this is a pattern repeated over generations – calls the Jets ‘rapists’. And we have a gratuitous transformation of the Anybodys character, from tomboy to trans. Ok, but why?

I confess, I was really looking forward to this film. My mum and step-dad, who was a jazz musician, used to play the soundtrack and sing the songs, I knew the words. But I was disappointed. Yes, there were some nice moments; the cleaners in the department store singing ‘I’m so pretty’ while posing with obviously white dress manikins made a point. But the point was focused on the identity of Puerto Ricans as victim immigrants with not a whisper about the colonial relationship with Puerto Rico.


The film was supposed to be more grounded in reality but actually looked more artificial. A Brazilian friend watching the film with us said he was surprised at the end that there were real actors named because he had assumed that it was all done with CGI. Along with the glossy CGI images was an apparently computer-generated script, a sad output from Tony Kushner.

The Globe Theatre in London recently had a trigger warning for its performance of Romeo and Juliet, that the production ‘contains depictions of suicide, moments of violence and reference to drug use’, and that it contains ‘gunshot sound effects and the use of stage blood’. This West Side Story might have told us that it was lathered with more well-meaning messages but, warning, infused with ideology, ‘an unnecessary remake, avoid’.

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