Issue 235 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Exclusive Society
At the heart of T Coraghessan Boyle's wonderful novel The Tortilla Curtain is a scene in which a community of wealthy white liberals in southem Los Angeles discusses how it can best deal with the 'problem' of illegal Mexican immigrants. After much agonising, these erstwhile 1960s radicals agree that only an eight foot wall built round their community will guarantee full protection from jobless Mexicans.
It is that trend in the late 20th century towards demonising, casting out and excluding 'problem' populations that Jock Young explores in this book. Perhaps the most vivid example of what Young calls 'the exclusive society' is the fact that currently one in nine African-American males aged between 20 and 29 in the US is in prison at any one time, and one in three African-Americans is either in prison, on probation or parole. This cumulative total of 1.6 million people is roughly equivalent to the population of Philadelphia.
During capitalism's 'Golden Age' in the 1950s and 1960s, Young argues, the dominant ideologies were optimistic and 'inclusive'--young offenders could be rehabilitated; mentally ill people could be 'treated'. There was a concern with the causes of behaviour. By contrast, in the period of what he refers to (in fashionable sociological language) as 'late modernity', these notions are replaced by an ideology of actuarialism. Risk minimisation replaces any concern with rehabilitation or social justice or making sense of offending behaviour--three strikes and you're out.
Reinforcing such exclusion is a growing tendency to demonise and scapegoat groups such as lone parents and the young unemployed as 'different' from the rest of us, often as part of an 'underclass' who see the world in a different way. In fact, as Young shows through an analysis of studies of black youth in Philadelphia, far from these young men rejecting dominant values, if anything they over-subscribe to them but find that they are blocked from achieving them in legitimate ways.
Not surprisingly, many end up in prison. Far from 'prison working', however, as conservatives like Charles Murray and Michael Howard argue, homicide remains the single most common cause of death among young black men in the US. As Young comments, 'If it takes a gulag to maintain a winner-takes-all society, then it is society that must be changed rather than the prison expanded.'
Unfortunately, despite the useful critique which he develops of both New Right and (some) New Labour responses to crime, his own strategies for changing society are anodyne in the extreme. While insisting throughout that it is market forces which have created the 'exclusive society', Young's rather lame conclusion is to call for a 'radical meritocracy', a demand which would leave the structures of inequality intact but, like Will Hutton's concept of stakeholding, would probably still prove too radical for New Labour.
Moreover, despite his critique of demonisation, Young occasionally comes dangerously close to demonisation himself. Thus he extols the virtues of CCTV in crime control as 'liberating and protective. The kids who hound the elderly on sink estates can be documented and traced, the neighbours from hell can be brought to book, and many more innovative uses can be designed.' As Nick Davies has shown in his excellent book Dark Heart what kids on sink estates need is not CCTV or curfews but decent jobs and a bit of hope.
The problem for Young is that he has argued for the past decade that the left must take the 'problem' of crime more seriously by focusing less on the causes of crime and more on 'here and now' solutions. Jack Straw is doing precisely that. While Young clearly feels a bit uncomfortable with some of New Labour's policies, he has no real alternative to offer. Thus, while he provides a useful description and critique of a capitalism in which the wealthy are increasingly retreating behind their high walls, any notion of a socialist alternative to the destruction of human lives on a grand scale is entirely absent. All that we are left with is a few frankly utopian suggestions for making 'late modernity' slightly more humane.
Adventures in Marxism
Many readers will be familiar with Marshall Berman's All that is Solid Melts into Air, his controversial book on the culture and politics of modernity. His latest book, Adventures in Marxism, continues his reflections on politics and culture in Marxism via a series of essays originally published in a variety of journals over the last 30 years.
In his introductory essay Berman reveals the deep personal and political impact that two events made on him in the second half of the 1950s: the first the premature death of his father who grew up and died in the intense rivalry and poor working conditions of the garment industry in New York; the second, his purchase in 1959 of a copy of Marxs Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. The two events are tied because the exploitation, alienation, stresses and restrictions of life under capitalism were contrasted with Marxs vision of a society of freedom, hope and liberation. These events, Berman claims, started his 'adventure' in Marxism, which continues and which maintains his conviction that Marxism remains the only long term hope for humanity.
There are two types of essays in the book. First there are a series of long reviews of various books by Marxists or authors engaging with Marxism. Centrally, Berman repeatedly reflects back on the 1844 Manuscripts to highlight the potential for human freedom and creativity in 'late' capitalism, as well as under socialism. Yet in places this means there is not enough emphasis placed on the restrictions of capitalism which limit freedom of action and productivity.
These essays also suffer to some degree because each chapter is devoted to exploring the book or books under consideration and assume some knowledge of the original texts. Thus there is an unevenness about these chapters and their relevance, although some are very enjoyable. Two in particular stand out. In 'The People in Capital', Berman highlights brilliantly Marx's literary skills in bringing alive a number of civil servants, factory owners and workers in Capital. In 'Unchained Me"', his review of the 150 year anniversary edition of the Communist Manifesto, he retelIs a friend's story from Bavaria prior to the First World War, when his friend's father was a GP attending to workers dying from TB. He could do nothing to save them, but asked them for any last requests. Many asked to be buried with the Manifesto, and asked the doctor to be vigilant and not let the priest replace it with the bible!
Punctuated between these literary reviews are three longer theoretical pieces. These are less satisfactory and reveal some of the weaknesses of Berman's politics. They re-emphasise his commitment to a 'Marxist humanism', which emphasises that people can make history but pays insufficient attention to the context within which they act and are constrained. Politically the weakness is revealed in the contrasting claims that everything that 'happened to Marx after 1917 was a disaster' and that Gorbachev tried to 'enlarge personal freedom [but] was too late'. The gains of the revolution and the specific reasons why it was eventually defeated are ignored. He also comes close to idealism. In places it is almost as if knowledge of the Marxist dialectic allows us (individually) to grasp our own freedom of spirit and mind.
Dario Fo--Revolutionary Theatre
Tom Behan's task in writing a political biography of the Italian actor, author and producer Dario Fo was not an easy one. For how do you transfer to the page the vivacity, the political excitement, and the sheer fun of a theatre where the audiences were not merely passive observers but part of a movement which at its height was posing as an alternative to the rotten and corrupt system in which actors and audience lived? Given these difficulties; Behan has succeeded brilliantly.
At its worst, left wing theatre can be worthy but dull. Fo's theatre managed to avoid that through his comic invention, his mix of laughter and ridicule. He used satire to expose the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the church, and the contortions of the politicians and the police in their bids to escape the accusations of murder, corruption and failure.
On occasions I have heard actors speak of the 'danger' of being an actor--by this they've usually meant the risk of failing onstage before an audience of hundreds. However, the kind of theatre Fo and his partner Franca Rame developed puts those fears in perspective, for at times Fo and his actors were exposed to bomb attacks, police harassment, arrest and, worst of all for Rame, torture and rape by neo-fascists.
From an early age Fo was connected with political struggle in Italy. He worked briefly with his father in the anti-fascist Resistance movement and absorbed left wing ideas. The cultural influences came from a background steeped in the tradition of fabulatore, the oral story tellers of his region. Later, in his Mistero Buffo (Comic Mysteries), he revived and adapted the tradition and stories of the guillari, travelling players who used to perform to people in the streets and squares of medieval Italy, who, according to Fo, 'revealed to people their own condition'. They were 'the people's spoken newspaper', often critical of the status quo and of the rich and powerful.
Fo was a Marxist but not a member of the PCI, the Italian Communist Party. He was always to the left of it, believing that a better society would be created by mass struggle.
Fo drifted towards theatre in the late 1940s and got his first big break in 1952 when he wrote a series of shows for the state radio channel. The shows turned a common sense view of the world on its head, emphasising paradoxes. However, his work in commercial theatre and radio was hampered by the atmosphere of repression and censorship which prevailed during the Cold War.
During the 1960s, with the rise in workers' confidence, things began to change. There was an explosion of working class activity which influenced both Fo's writing and his way of working. Despite being hugely popular, his work in television was hampered by the authorities. Fo and Rame returned to the theatre, but they became frustrated by bourgeois theatre. The shows they put on were radical enough but, as Rame wrote, 'The high bourgeoisie reacted to our spankings with pleasure... we had become the minstrels of a fat and intelligent bourgeoisie.'
They broke with the bourgeois circuit in 1968. A mass movement was developing outside the control of the PCI. From then until 1978 Fo, Rame and their theatre group, New Scene, connected with that, developing new forms of theatre, performing in working class venues, even in factories or the car parks of factories, getting the audience to participate in and learn from debates after the show. One of the high points of Fo's work was the production of his play Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which Fo claims is the most performed play in the world over the past 40 years. Behan details the events that led to the writing of the play and the impact these and the play had on the political scene. The play was an immediate success, exposing how the system deals with scandal, challenging ideas that change can come through parliament.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the upturn in struggle ended. This affected the content of Fo's work. He became engaged in writing plays concerning personal relationships and collaborated with Rame working on shows concerning women's oppression. Circumstances forced them back to the commercial theatre, though with the production of Trumpets and Raspberries, the central theme of which is the nature of the state, Fo showed that the old bite was still there.
On the political front what had seemed to be an alternative, Maoism, became discredited and Fo and Rame moved back to the parliamentary left. Criticisms can be made of Fo's political mistakes but his contributions to working class struggle, not just in Italy, remain undoubted.
The Things We Do to Make it Home
President Clinton's reluctance to deploy ground troops or risk any American casualties in Kosovo is evidence that the effect of the defeat suffered by the US in Vietnam is still apparent 25 years later. But this Vietnam syndrome is not the only remaining effect felt by US society. George Bush Junior, who hopes to emulate George Bush Senior all the way to the White House, is under pressure to explain how he managed to dodge conscription.
But well beyond the US ruling class, the stain that the Vietnam War has left on the lives of those who fought there refuses to wash away. It is evident above all from the number of 'vets' who have been unable to adjust to ordinary life after the barbarity they had participated in, and have ended up on the streets. This moving and often disturbing novel gives a voice to a few of those who struggled to cope, but it focuses particularly on the women around them, their wives, lovers, sisters and daughters, and how their lives mere twisted around by their war-changed men.
The Things We Do to Make it Home opens in New York in 1973 at a house party to watch the Watergate hearings on television shortly after Rooster, Frankie, Nick, Sean, Rod and Jason have returned from Vietnam. Each of them is on edge and though they wish to settle back into civilian life, their frenetic, irrational behaviour at the party reveals the demons with which the war has left them. We watch as the barely formed scabs are picked off their mental wounds.
From this volatile and chilling opening, the book jumps to the present day and with it, drugs, mental illness, fear of responsibility, and begging. Gologorsky's stark and unemotional writing shows well the route to living on the streets for some. Throughout the book homeless people are a recurring image, just as the war is for the vets.
The women waitresses, beauticians, mothers, fight to raise their children while watching the men writhe in front of them. Jason and Emma have to deal not only with the war, but unemployment and threatened eviction as well. 'We're not going to lose it Emma, this is America.' 'Go downtown. Barefoot people dragging bags of empty soda cans, laying out their clothes on the sidewalk, selling them for a cup of coffee. Right here, not Calcutta. They were like us once, but not now, not anymore.'
Sara-Jo, Rooster's daughter, who almost alone is not confined by the war, at one point tells a photographer about her parents' friends: 'They lived their whole lives in a year or two. Nothing and no one that came after matters. Not in the same way.' It is exactly this that Gologorsky so brilliantly and yet so sparingly describes. The men cannot escape the effects of the Vietnam War and so neither can the women.
This is a humane and engaging novel that feels for the working class couples it describes but also looks to a hopeful future. Sara-Jo leaves her boyfriend when he joins the marines and later, when she is asked by the photographer what pictures she would take of Vietnam vets, replies, 'I'd show their children climbing out of their wastelands. That would be life-enhancing.'
Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics
Although she is generally remembered for being one of the famous Pankhursts who fought for votes for women at the turn of the century, this image has never done full justice to Sylvia Pankhurst's politics. Thankfully, Mary Davis's new book does this.
For Sylvia Pankhurst, the fight for votes for women was only the beginning of a much wider battle, although she conducted the suffrage campaign with a militancy which would horrify our Labour government as much as it did the Liberal one of her time. Confrontation with the establishment was the hallmark of Sylvia Pankhurst's political life. During the Great Unrest strike wave of 1910-14 she threw herself into organising the working class women of London's East End.
Her paper, the Women's Dreadnought, opposed Britain's role in the First World War from the outset, and scathingly condemned the Labour leadership's support for it. When the Russian Revolution came in 1917, Sylvia Pankhurst threw herself into championing it amongst the British working class. In 1920 she was imprisoned for sedition after publishing articles calling for mutinies inside the British army against the blockade of Russia. She rejected the idea of achieving change through parliament and joined the Communist Party.
Two major themes are highlighted in her ideas: firstly, the contesting viewpoints of feminism and socialism when it came to the question of women's liberation, and secondly, the argument between reform and revolution which was raised sharply during the years of war and revolution.
Caught between feminism and class politics in the early years, Sylvia Pankhurst remained loyal to, but increasingly compromised by, the Women's Social and Political Union. Under the leadership of her mother and sister, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, the WSPU claimed to represent the interests of women of all classes. However, the WSPU did not believe working class women would be the main beneficiaries of reform and did not really see them as the ones to bring it about.
Sylvia battled against the right wing drift of the WSPU by organising in its name among working class women in the East End. She understood that political and legal equality were only a means to bring liberation from sweated labour, greedy landlords and the hunger of their children.
In 1914 Sylvia denounced the First World War and moved rapidly to the left, pulling her organisation behind her. Meanwhile her mother and sister threw the WSPU into ultra-patriotic warmongering. Three years later the Russian Revolution showed Sylvia one solution to the two kinds of injustice which engaged her, the oppression of women and the exploitation of the working class.
This isn't the end of the story. The Russian Revolution failed to spread successfully and, after arguments over strategy with the Communist Party turned into a serious rift, Sylvia Pankhurst drifted away from revolutionary socialist organisation. She remained an activist, however, and was among the first on the left in Britain to begin campaigning against Mussolini's fascism in Italy.
Mary Davis shows that Sylvia Pankhurst had sometimes contradictory ideas and was not fully grounded in Marxist theory. So, for instance, you find her writing about the need for women to raise children without men and a tax on every man to pay for it. State-provided childcare and domestic facilities don't figure here, although in another article these are mentioned--however, these are to be organised by mothers' soviets, which seems to miss the point somewhat.
But whatever her faults, Sylvia Pankhurst's life, activity and ideas are an inspiration, and this book does a good job in setting them out.
Drinking the Sea at Gaza
Hamish Hamilton £20
There is a long list of books produced by Israelis who have been deeply disturbed by Zionist policy towards the Palestinians. This is one of the best--it is a forceful account of repression and of a regime of terror maintained in the occupied territories for over 25 years. It is also a courageous book. Amira Hass, a journalist for the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz immersed herself in Palestinian life in Gaza.
Hass conveys vividly the predicaments and achievements of Palestinians living both under Israeli rule and, since 1994, under Arafat's Palestinian National Authority (PNA). In this sense, Drinking the Sea at Gaza is an important book. But like almost all attempts by Israel is to assert Jewish-Arab solidarity, it fails to grapple with the root problem of the Palestinians' condition--the presence of a state premised upon the expulsion and marginalisation of the indigenous population. Israel is a colonial settler state which has ruthlessly suppressed all attempts by the Palestinians to retrieve their lands and homes. No amount of hand wringing by anxious liberals and calls like that by Hass for 'a peaceful political solution' can provide an answer for the mass of Palestinians. A far more radical approach is required.
As an Israeli, Hass enjoyed freedom of movement denied to most Palestinians. As a woman with a network of genuine friendships among Palestinians, she was able to move widely within Gazan society. Her book records the detail of daily life under Israeli rule, especially the relentless brutality of young Israelis who, as soldiers of the occupation, had the task of subordinating the Gazans. During the Intifada--the Palestinian uprising which began in 1987--thousands of Palestinians were shot in cold blood by Israeli troops. During the first four years of the Intifada, every two weeks a child under the age of six was shot in the head while thousands of Gazans were beaten and imprisoned.
Hass identifies strongly with the plight of refugees in Gaza--those whose homes elsewhere in Palestine came under occupation in 1948. Unusually among Israeli writers, she describes carefully the memories of home--of the villages and towns from which refugees were driven. She highlights the importance of visions of 'return' which have animated Palestinian nationalism, and the growing awareness that all efforts have brought Palestinians no closer to the realisation of their hopes.
In describing the early stages of the Intifada, Hass reveals the massive scale of mobilisation among the people of Gaza, especially the role of trade unions, largely ignored in most histories of the uprising. For Palestinians, the Intifada was an attempt to secure what the guerrilla strategy of the PLO could not achieve. It engaged the whole population, generating huge solidarity across the Arab world. Arafat and his bureaucrats worked to control and subvert the movement, replacing a network of rank and file groups with the PNA--which from the beginning was a synonym for corruption and petty tyranny.
Hass is rightly critical of these developments. But the criticisms are superficial. Why was Arafat intent on subverting the Intifada? Why had he long ago embraced the politics of Arab kings and presidents? Why did the uprising remain isolated? And what of Zionism--with its militarisation of Israeli youth, its invasions and occupations? Who funded the huge war machine of this tiny state--and why? What lay behind an occupation of Gaza that lasted for a generation?
Her book might have been an attempt to present a means of bridging the divide between Arabs and Jews by breaking down the isolation of Palestinian struggles from those of the masses of people across the Arab world. To do so would involve a decisive break with the Zionist traditions which inhibit Hass and the Israeli left. Instead Hass believes that the Palestinians must accept--and are accepting--their predicament.
Many young activists in Gaza will disagree. As they struggle to throw off the inhibitions of narrow nationalism they will seek a solidarity which can challenge Israel. What a pity that Hass could not infuse her account of the resistance with an understanding that the quest for a Palestinian solution is far from over.
Slaves in the Family
Edward Ball is a direct descendant of the Ball family of slave owners, who had a monopoly over South Carolina rice plantations between the latter part of the 17th century and emancipation in 1863. The family secured huge amounts of wealth from slavery. Ball's research chronicles six generations of the family, starting with the 'founder' of the Ball slave 'empire', Elias Ball, and the first documented Ball slave, Bella, purchased in 1720.
The slaves of the Ball family were property in every sense--both their labour and their person. Once 'broken in', families were often separated--sold off to other family members, given as gifts, or bartered at the slave master's whim. 'Difficult' slaves were sent to workhouses, where their owners paid a fee for the administering of punishments. Sexual exploitation was rife and women were often raped.
Ball captures the spirit and defiance of the slaves by highlighting the numerous uprisings that were enough to send shockwaves through the Southern plantation owners. Perhaps the most prominent rebel lion was the Stono Uprising in 1739, where up to 100 slaves marched through the city with banners and drums, burning many plantations.
The use of religion became an effective tool for plantation owners in the wake of these uprisings. By the 1800s most Southern blacks were converted to evangelical Christianity with the doctrine of a better life after death. After emancipation most blacks poured scorn on their oppressor's religion and formed their own churches, religions and pastors.
Ball also examines the documented growth of paternalism within slave/master relationships occurring in the 18th century--although kindness within the context of slavery takes on a new meaning. The majority of the Ball slave owners lived in mansions in the cities, far away from the gruelling toil, sweat and disease of the rice fields, and they employed overseers to administer punishment. In the cities slave owners mingled with other members of high society.
Colour was used to justify slavery and to brand African people as 'subhuman' and 'uncivilised', but class played a large part in the business of slavery. Many African chiefs readily took part in the slave trade, selling mainly prisoners of war and 'troublesome' individuals in return for ammunition, rum and jewellery. The same can be said for the influx of indentured white English and Irish servants who worked the land in the early colonies. They also shared the pain and suffering that their black neighbours endured.
Perhaps the ultimate show of solidarity against slavery was the enlisting of thousands of slaves against their masters during the civil war in the fight for emancipation. Although Edward Ball does not make a connection between slavery and the growth of capitalism, his recollection of the Ball slave empire gives an authentic, fresh and vivid account of slave/master relationships.
The General Strike Day by Day
'Reports from Land's End to John O'Groats have surpassed all our expectations... not only the railwaymen and transport workers but those in other trades have come out in a manner we did not quite expect immediately. The General Council's difficulty has been to keep men at work in the trades that are in the second line of defence.'
Such was the exuberance with which the TUC announced the impact of the first day of the General Strike of 1926. The strike lasted nine days and Britain ground to a halt. A few trains and buses ran, but only when driven by scabbing 'volunteers'. Food supplies had to be protected by armed police and army units. Almost 1.75 million workers heeded the TUC union leaders' call for a 'national strike' in support of 1 million miners who had been locked out for rejecting cuts in pay and conditions.
'The first full day of the General Strike began with an eerie silence at the railway stations, with the London Underground at a virtual standstill and bus and transport services throughout the rest of the country almost totally abandoned.' That's how Keith Laybourn, author of an earlier book, The General Strike of 1926, describes the start of this greatest class battle this century in a new paperback edition of his account, first published on its 70th anniversary.
Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin had declared war on workers' living standards the year before. The decisive confrontation was to be with the miners, who made up one in eight of Britain's trade unionists. The TUC eventually had no alternative but to take up Baldwin's challenge and insist that the miners would be supported.
But while the government prepared for class war--coal stockpiled and middle class scabs formed into the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies--during a nine month stand off after subsidy for the mines had been agreed in July 1925, the TUC 'did little to prepare in case their actions were taken to be provocative'! When the miners were locked out after the government's Samuel Commission came out in favour of wage cuts, the TUC's bluff was called and the strike was on. The response up and down the country from print workers, steel workers, building and chemical workers, was an act of tremendous solidarity. Trades councils reported the strike was absolutely solid. The TUC--which had maintained throughout that it was a trade union dispute and not a challenge to the government--called the strike off on 12 May. The miners bravely fought on alone for six months before being starved back.
Laybourn's 'balanced day to day account of the activities of all sides' is a useful little book, drawing on the diaries and original documents, which provide further evidence to refute the myth that British workers have never really fought back.
Yet Laybourn's conclusions are somewhat contradictory. He rightly analyses the 'real weaknesses' as that of a constitutional trade union movement intent on separating politics from economics. But Laybourn also denies that the defeat of the General Strike was the disaster it truly was, with the movement set back years and workers paying the price on the dole queues of the 1930s.
May 1926 may not have been a revolutionary situation, but it was a turning point. And had the strike been victorious it could have shifted the balance of forces in favour of workers in Britain. Revolutionary tactics and strategy could have won the immediate demands about wages and the mines, and also increased the confidence and organisation of workers to go forward. Unfortunately the Communist Party, which despite its relatively small size played a significant role, did not challenge the right of the TUC to control the dispute. No genuine alternative was offered to those left leaders who tragically failed to denounce the right wing or call for initiatives from rank and file workers to break the bureaucratically defined boundaries of a strike they had failed to support.