Tuesday, September 30, 2008


For all the talk of apocalypse, at least we now know that history didn’t end after all. The events of the last couple of weeks have demonstrated the failure of the neoliberal experiment so explicitly, that its exponents can barely predict what might happen during the next 12 hours. Public confidence in the market has evaporated – it had been waning anyway – and those of us with or without an economical bent wonder where we might go next.

The Right – finance capital, and those who believe that civilization depends on its prosperity – is dominating this question at the moment. The laissez-faire-ists believe that the $700 billion package proposed by the US Treasury Secretary to bail out Wall Street is “economic Socialism”. Nothing could be further from the truth – passing vast sums of public money into private hands could never be described as Socialism. But they are correct in saying that, as an intervention by the State, recent events have disobeyed the rules of laissez-faire. They believe that the market will iron out these unfortunate creases, and that capitalism will proceed as normal.

The practical neoliberals think they know better. They recognise that the use of public money to bolster private capital has been a hallmark of successful neoliberal economies, and that governments have been bailing out financial institutions for a long time. They acknowledge that we are probably entering the severest depression for 90 years, and are willing to perform the most barefaced of voltes-face – including supporting nationalisation, until recently a policy verboten amongst all mainstream political parties – to preserve the capitalist economy. They are more pragmatic, more hypocritical and just as wrong as the laissez-faire-ists, for it is unlikely that $700 billion will be any more than a sticking plaster. (They are, incidentally, the same bunch of people who agreed $612 billion military budget to fund ongoing adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan)

And what about the Left? The first thing to say about left-wing economists is that they have the upper hand. Schadenfreude may re-enforce the view that the Left never has anything positive to say, but we should not hesitate to say that this crisis was forecast as an inevitable result of capitalism generally and neoliberalism in particular.

The obvious response is to correct the wrongs of neoliberalism by proposing those great Keynesian policies of increasing wages and investing in public services. This is moderate stuff, though after the rightwards turn taken by politics in my lifetime, it feels positively radical. Given the doubtfulness of this current crisis being allayed merely by lowering interest rates, and given diminished stocks of credit, it seems unlikely that capitalism can survive without significant government spending.

But why might such policies succeed now, where previously they have failed? Along with the massive flow of American credit to Europe after the Second World War, Keynesian policies – in particular, full employment and provision of welfare by the State – ensured that world capitalism thrived during its Golden Age, and that workers chose consumption over Communism. But the flipside of Keynesianism is that, by depending on governments building up debts, it is unsustainable. Spiralling inflation has been its undoing in the past; with the world’s largest economy already nearly $10 trillion in the red, it appears even less likely to contain the contradictions of capitalism. It is true that workers are chronically underpaid – inadequate compensation for their labour is the reason for the credit boom and consequent crunch – and increasing wages and enhancing welfare is essential. But the policies of Keynes, no less than Paulson, are a palliative patching up a system which, by rights, should be put out of its misery.

Rational logic and lived experience suggest that Marx’s critique of capitalism still stands. Contemporary economists of the Left have explained this critique well, and pointed to a catastrophically disease-ridden market as evidence. They now need to consider a plan of action, a plan around which those who picture a world beyond capitalism can rally. Us layfolk can be visionary, but it’s the smart economists out there who will turn our visions into reality.

Monday, September 29, 2008


The Miracle Worker tells the story of Helen Keller, a child who becomes deaf and blind shortly after birth, and who is so spoiled and pitied by her own family, that she becomes virtually feral until a young woman named Annie Sullivan takes her under her wing and helps her to become a human. Sullivan’s methods are unorthodox, but by seeing Helen’s potential, she helps her to comprehend and articulate the world around her. The film’s penultimate scene is of Helen and Annie drawing water from a pump. After Sullivan’s tireless lessons of the deaf-blind alphabet to Helen, the young girl finally realises the connection between signifier and signified and says the word “WATER”.

There the story ends. Without wishing to analyse the film in any depth (though please do leave comments – you know who you are, Mr Kinophile), its story is of an unfortunate child, born into a sightless, soundless world, who is misunderstood by her family, but who is finally rescued by the miracle worker of the title. In an article for the journal Rethinking Schools, Ruth Hubbard suggests that the portrayal of Keller as an “angelic, sexless, deafblind woman smelling a rose as she holds a Braille book on her lap” is designed to convey “a politically conservative moral lesson, one that stresses the ability of the individual to overcome personal adversity in a fair world. The lesson we are meant to learn seems to be: 'Society is fine the way it is. Look at Helen Keller! Even though she was deaf and blind, she worked hard – with a smile on her face – and overcame her disabilities.'”

In fact, the really interesting story starts shortly after that of the film finishes. Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller remained close friends, and Annie’s husband, William Macy, was a committed Marxist. Sullivan, recognising a radical streak in Keller, gave her a copy of H.G. Wells’s New worlds for old and some summaries of Marx’s core concepts. Keller devoured these works, and became an unswerving Socialist, and by the inter-war years she had become the most famous disability rights campaigner in the USA.

Keller’s key contribution to disability rights was that disability – blindness, deafness or any other chronic illness – was linked to class. In an early, relatively timid essay entitled “I must speak”, she identifies the cause of much childhood blindness as ophthalmia neonatorum, an infection passed on from man to woman, and from woman to child. It is easily treatable, she says, but its source lies in the sin of immoral men and women (in a later essay, she realises that the sin that she speaks of is itself a consequence of poverty and exploitation).

She challenges a commonly-held view that workers might be poor because they are deaf or blind – that their poverty, in other words, is due to a necessary, or unexplainable, evil – by explaining the necessity of unemployment within the capitalist system:

There are, it is estimated, a million labourers out of work in the United States. Their inaction is not due to physical defects or lack of ability or of intelligence, or to ill health or vice. It is due to the fact that our present system of production necessitates a large margin of idle men. The business world in which we live cannot give every man opportunity to fulfil his capabilities or even assure him continuous occupation as an unskilled labourer. The means of employment – the land and the factories, that is, the tools of labour – are in the hands of a minority of the people, and are used rather with a view to increasing the owner’s profits than with a view to keeping all men busy and productive. Hence there are more men than jobs. This is the first and the chief evil of the so-called capitalistic system of production. The workman has nothing to sell but his labour. He is in strife, in rivalry with his fellows for a chance to sell his power. Naturally the weaker workman is thrust aside.

Keller’s Socialist beliefs were an embarrassment to capitalists who wished to champion her promotion of disability rights. She writes of one Mr McKelway, the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who had once praised her campaign but, upon realising that she was a Socialist, had written an editorial suggesting that her “mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development.” Keller is indignant at his hypocrisy:

Now that I have come out for Socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him ... The Eagle and I are at war. I hate the system which it represents, apologises for and upholds. When it fights back, let it fight fair. Let it attack my ideas and oppose the aims and arguments of socialism. It is not fair fighting or good argument to remind me and others that I cannot see or hear. I can read. I can read all the socialist books I have time for in English, German and French. If the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle should read some of them, he might be a wiser man and make a better newspaper.

Since I've been getting into Spinoza lately, I especially like this passage from an interview with Keller by Barbara Bindley for the New York Tribune in 1916. Keller is asked about the eureka moment in which she discovered that things were not as they seemed:

"For a time I was depressed, but little by little my confidence came back and I realised that the wonder is not that conditions are so bad, but that humanity has advanced so far in spite of them...Reality even when it is sad is better than illusions. Illusions are at the mercy of any winds that blow. Real happiness must come from within, from a fixed purpose and faith in one's fellow men, and of that I have more than I ever had.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


The Open House weekend is a good thing for many reasons, but one of them is that it gives you the opportunity to snoop around people’s flats. Living in a flatshare in the basement of a run-of-the-mill Georgian house, I am always rather envious of people who live in interesting buildings, so it was bracing to see residents of Pullman Court in Streatham and Alexandra Road in Camden, both beautiful, radical blocks, celebrating the places in which they lat their hats.

On Sunday, we went to Pullman Court, an International style block of 218 private residential flats in three blocks at the top of Brixton Hill. They were built in 1936 and represent a response to two challenges of the day: a chronic shortage of decent housing, and the question of how to apply modern materials and forms to more traditional ways of building homes. Explicitly inspired by the principles of the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture held in New York City four years earlier, the flats were inexpensive and offered modern, stylish accommodation to single workers.

The inside of the flat we looked round was drenched in 1930s Modernity. It had the original electric heaters, slim, sheet-steel window frames and chrome doorframes and wooden sliding-doors between bedrooms. The flats would be small even for a single person, and this one was shared. But the tenant we chatted to said he loved it, and didn’t find it at all constrictive. The thin kitchen, for all its maximisation of space, wouldn’t do for me, and the bathroom barely contained a bath, wash-basin and WC. But the flats do respond to the two problems mentioned above: since Streatham has never been fashionable, living there has always been relatively cheap, and the small area is used wisely to create as big a living space as possible. (It’s also worth saying that, since the dimensions of the flats did not fit the furniture that was then available, the architect Frederick Gibberd also designed tables, chairs and other furnishings which residents could buy – none of these furnishings, apparently, survive today)

The exterior of Pullman Court has changed more than its interior. The blocks were originally painted in different colours – blues, reds, greys and yellows – but they are now all white. In the sunshine, the reinforced concrete walls glimmer, and when the outdoor swimming-pool and roof gardens were once used in the summer, the whole estate must have felt like a Mediterranean resort.

There is, I think, something rather tentative about Pullman Court. Frederick Gibberd was one of the earliest of the British Modernists, and he was only 23 when he was offered the commission. It is a neat, tidy, chic example of functioning form, but it lacks the daring of, say, the Isokon Building or Highpoint One or the De La Warr Pavilion.

This article (click the chapter headings on the sidebar to proceed) charts how Modernism became the backbone of residential building in the twentieth century and how, rather unfairly, its harvest of flats and apartments became associated with the worst symptoms of urban decay. By the late 1970s, social housing construction (long associated with the Modernist style) had begun seriously to wane. Alexandra Road, the last great Council housing project in London, therefore stands as an elegy to the movement and its vision.

I visited Alexandra Road on Saturday afternoon, after my first ever walk over the Abbey Road zebra-crossing (this from a man who, aged 10, owned every Beatles album and could give chapter and verse on the intricacies of their recording sessions). It was designed by Neave Brown, then Camden’s Borough Architect, to provide high-density, low-rise housing primarily to families (Camden has an historic and somewhat notorious shortage of housing of families), and was opened in 1979.

It was designed to be a self-contained community, a late twentieth century update of the street lined with terraced houses, a mixture of communality and privacy, economy and luxury. The complex consciously recalls an earlier vision of LCC municipal housing. It includes a community centre, school, playgroup, children’s play area, older people’s sheltered housing, shops and a green space, all of which – to the credit of the Council and other community-run organisations – are still running.

But for all its wholesome foundations, Alexandra Road is an unorthodox creation. Walking through it for the first time, it is certainly exciting and challenging. Sociable too – neighbours were mingling in the walkway on this Indian summer’s day, adults chatting over cups of tea, children crashing their tricycles into one another and giggling. It is easy to imagine a child falling in love with it – after all, its blocks resemble the sort of scaly reptiles they might make in a junk-modelling class. Its tiered concrete slabs descend from high above the London Overground railway line to the paths which separate one block from another.

The architects’ plans demonstrate clearly enough that everybody can see everybody else, but the resident of the flat I looked around said that privacy was perfectly possible. A fellow tenant in my tour party told me that, for all that people sometimes peered into your window, at least you knew that people were looking out for you. Alexandra Road has never been blighted with the reputation bestowed upon some Council housing estates.

The flat we looked around on Open House day was beautiful: airy, spacious, cleverly proportioned and utterly stylish. There were lots of simple, smart features: interior floor-to-ceiling doors which made every room feel so much taller; sliding-doors for peace and quiet or communal living; stairs which, by a tweak of design, are made wider for the older or frailer person; plain, tabula rasa features, onto which tenants could apply their own designs; balconies on which most residents have created canopies of green. I don’t for a moment believe that this flat was typical. It had been deliberately preserved and protected; back-copies of Architectural Review littered the dining-room table.

But these were stunningly well-designed flats, amenable to the most cluttered or minimalist of tastes. It is a masterpiece of design. Camden Council is lucky to have it and thereby uphold Lubetkin’s declaration that “nothing is too good for ordinary people.”

Thursday, September 11, 2008


On the 35th anniversary (give or take an hour) of Salvador Allende's death, it's worth casting one's eye at what's going down in one of Chile's neighbours - Bolivia.

Lenin's synopsis of the political violence which is sweeping through Eastern Bolivia at the moment usefully summarises the upheavals of the past couple of months and hints at the wider implications of this violence, but it glosses over the nature of that violence. For make no mistake, the Bolivian right-wing is employing tactics which are overtly Fascist. As this news report shows, indigenous people and government representatives have been subject to racist taunts and vicious beatings at the hands of young neo-Nazi Bolivians, who are in turn the pawns of financial and industrial capital.

To summarise, President Evo Morales came to power in 2005 after a wave of disaffection against the pro-Western neoliberal policies which had been pursued by his predecessors. The first Latin President of indigenous descent, Morales immediately split opinion, and his election terrified people with huge stakes in industry and those who believed that Bolivia was best run by Caucasians educated in Europe or the USA.

Many of Morales's policies have been fairly moderate, but the mere fact that he, an Indian, is President has proved to be revolutionary. The right-wing, based mainly in the resource-rich provinces of the East, has done everything it can to block his constitutional reforms of empowering indigenous people and reforming the ownership of land. In a referendum called earlier in the Summer, two thirds of Bolivians voted to keep Morales as President - yet, still the Governors of the Eastern provinces are determined to block his reforms and push for autonomy.

And so, President Evo Morales is more or less powerless. Even with legitimacy, law and overwhelming public support on his side, his cannot deliver his policies. Even by stepping foot in the Eastern half of the country, he risks his life. This teaches us a very real lesson about Parliamentary democracy: that it can only operate when the wealthy are in charge. The coups against Allende and, more recently, Chavez teach us that when Socialists are elected to power, the defenders of democracy backtrack and instead strive to defend their own capitalist interests. The same may prove to be true in Bolivia; the right-wing, anti-Morales contingent in the East of Bolivia have employed the most violent means to reach their end, yet they are never criticised by the Governments of the United States or Great Britain. Instead, Morales and his Movimiento a Socialismo government are accused of operating a dictatorship.

It is worth noting the methods employed against indigenous people by some of the neo-Nazi groups in Bolivia, methods which are legitimised by mainstream political leaders. There has routinely been

whippings, beatings with clubs and two-by-fours, and punching, kicking, and swarming captured on private and state media alike. All of this is accompanied by disgusting racist epithets, and legitimated by the departmental prefectures and civic committees who say Morales’ “dictatorship” brought it all on. Jorge Soruco, a human rights activist in the department of Beni, conveyed the exasperation of popular sectors loyal to the government living in the five departments in rebellion: “This is racist dementia, madness that we can’t allow. We are living in an era of insanity, where the people of the opposition… are confronting the people with situations of extreme violence.”

The torching of a local Entel phone company building has been defended by Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas, and the Santa Cruz Civic Committee President Branko Marinkovic has described it as a "peacful takeover" of state installations. They have neither constititional, legal or popular legitimacy on their side - and yet they are in the ascendent.

So, what is to be done? These two articles recommend different approaches to President Morales: to continue proposing negotiations to his rivals and to not rise to their bait; or to react with the full power of state force and show the right-wing rebels that, since they lack the support of the Bolivian people, they shall not be allowed to get away with their anarchy. Both approaches have their merits, but I tend towards the latter.

If Morales and MAS remain passive, they may lose the support of the popular movement which make up the foundation of their support and become overwhelmed by the psychotic violence of the right-wing. Morales is in charge of a Socialist government - he will gain no plaudits from the West, however conscientious his politics, since he does not represent their interests. In this situation, a coup seems ever more likely - like Chavez before him, Morales must manoeuvre himself into a position from which he can continue to represent the two thirds of Bolivians who voted him in.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008



So, when are you coming out to Orlando?

Shunda: Like, as soon as you request for us to come. Make sure the accommodation is straight, coz I mean, we ran into situations where we were not treated like the women we are.

Jewel: Majesty, our name!

Shunda: And what we bring: we're not just bringing good music, man, we changing lives for real. People not just loving us and vocalizing it just because the music sounds good, they're listening to the words that we're saying [and] it's encouraging them. It's helping them get out of drought. Take your ass out to the club, drink on it, shake it a little bit and you know what I'm saying. Start over, you know, pick your self up.

Jewel: We got from the church in the morning to cleaning your house and you and your man just got in a fight, you popping and you gonna say, “Baby I'm so sorry, Lord, forgive me, Lord, I know you love me,” to: “Fuck that shit!” (laughs)

Shunda: What we’re doing is we're trying to help people be stress free.

Jewel: And stress free means be real with yourself, baby.

Shunda: That's real, so whenever you have us come through and take care of what needs to be taken care of we won’t have no problems, coz we'll be comfortable in our comfort zone and we'll come lay it down and make it happen and blow Orlando up.

Jewel: We ain’t even saying paying for a show for us to perform, just some accommodations.

Shunda: Some food, [and] can a n**** get a bed, and a hot shower, and a bowel of cereal in the morning? Damn, ain’t even gotta have some egg and steak!

Jewel: N**** just need an Oreo cookie! Can I get one of those? (laughs) Can I get some milk with it? Thank you!




Wrote about our prowl around Peckham and Burgess Park a couple of weekends back - and, as promised, DV and I returned to take photos of the carnivalesque Architectural Rescue and the eerie semi-demolished flat block. We also found Little Sao Paolo in a carpark round the back. See DV's pics here, here 'n' here.




The same weekend we went to Dulwich, in whose Picture Gallery you could until last week see "raw urban" images painted by kids from Lambeth - all from the comfort of your own Garden Village art gallery! (Sorry, I shouldn't be sarky - their forthcoming Poster Art series looks rather good, especially the Jazz Age London Transport posters)

Speaking of Peckham (or Peck-Nam), all of Giggs'S Walk in da park album has been posted on Youtube. Marcello Carlin reviews it here:

Walk In Da Park is what the real drowning of South London in the credit crunch age sounds like; messy but strict, bloody but governed by its own inaccessible precepts of anti-morality.

The slow, doomy "Intro (B.B.T.)" sets the tone with its epic string swirls, rumbles of frustration and loveless orgasms stabbing and echoing over Giggs's drawled split subjectivity ("Looking at my troubled life, thinking the grass looks greener on the other side, and God knows that my mother tried with me myself Hollow Man and my brother"). Over a stoned, broken gospel track, "Bring a message back" describes the yawning gap between the spectacle of politics and media, and the hidden reality of people living in SE15 / wherever: "They publicise gang crime so much cos there's real crime going on, we're the scapegoats". Marcello, in a moment of genius, dubs "More Maniacs" as "New Gold Nightmare". The whole thing sounds prophetic - but it merely dramatises the hidden side of the British coin, the side which is mercilessly overlooked by our moralising superiors. Its shock lies in its sobriety - for all its violence, this is a story calmly told.


The whole album has been posted on Youtube - have a listen, then buy yourself a copy. Marcello's right you know: "Walk In Da Park is the starkest of documents and must be heard, although listeners would do well to remember Giggs as he appears intermittently on Westwood's show; quiet of voice and demeanour, intense of ambition, flawless in purpose."

UPDATE! Interview with Giggs can be found here.