Was it nationalism wot won it?

As the early UK elections results started to confirm last Thursday’s exit poll predictions of an SNP landslide and overall Conservative victory in the 2015 General Election, Peter Mandelson was asked what went wrong for labour. His answer was that it was squeezed by two nationalisms – the SNP bringing Scottish nationalism into play north of the border while UKIP’s blue English nationalism took its toll elsewhere. And on Friday, as David Cameron reflected on the Conservative victory he stressed the need to bring together the nations of the United Kingdom. Given the astonishing dominance of the SNP’s win in Scotland, with 56 of 59 seats (albeit on 50% of the votes cast), alongside UKIP’s increasing share of the votes – up 10.7 England and even more in Wales – the argument that nationalism has coloured this election looks like a compelling analysis. Dissecting what this means for the Union will be a key issue of this Parliament. But, are we in danger of hurtling along a devolution path with a dangerously muddle-headed interpretation of these election results? I’m not convinced that this election marks a genuine nationalist moment so much as it does the working through of disengagement from Westminster politics – a longer term trend that is often recognised but very poorly understood by the main parties. Understanding whether this is indeed the case is absolutely vital: a full response to disengagement requires urgent constitutional reform – but not the same constitutional reforms as if the problem is a rising tide of nationalism. Thinking again about voters’ choices should raise doubts about the nationalism analysis. While 50% of voting Scots (on an impressive turnout of 71%) opted for a national-by-name party, only last year 55% of Scots voted against Scottish independence (on an even more impressive 84.5% turnout). It was, to be sure, a narrow victory for the ‘No’ camp, but significantly, Nicola Sturgeon refused to make a second referendum an issue for any post-election coalition with Labour. While the SNP’s rhetoric emphasised repeatedly the representation of Scotland in Parliament it was a position to defend Scotland against the impositions of a Tory government and a wider Westminster elite – not against the English per se. The SNP were undoubtedly helped by an exciting, engaging and dignified campaign in both the independence referendum and in the General Election, but that doesn’t mean it is nationalism that Scots have flocked to. The SNP are clearly to the left of Labour but stressed their willingness to deal with Labour in an anti-Tory coalition that defended working people against austerity measures. Scotland has long been anti-Tory and many Scots see Scotland as suffering disproportionate effects of the harsh regime of cuts that has apparently only just begun. UKIP have undoubtedly been stoking nationalism – this time a variant mixing ‘British’ and ‘English’ as convenient – in their election campaign. But again it is questionable whether the 3.9 million voters who selected UKIP were motivated by nationalism or other matters. UKIP drew votes more successfully from Labour than the Conservatives1 – probably because wavering Tories were sufficiently worried about the prospect of a Labour victory that they returned Conservative votes. The Conservatives clearly played the final days of the campaign well, during which they repeatedly stressed the prospect of a Labour-SNP coalition as economically dangerous. Were nationalism the draw for Labour-turned-UKIPers one would expect UKIP to find happier hunting among Tories than Labour supporters. One might also expect a rising tide of...

Against resilience

‘Resilience’ has become a buzzword among a range of policy networks, wherein it serves as an ambition. People ought to become more resilient. The world is threatening: the economy, the climate and terrorism all figure as dangers against whose impacts we must resile. The fertile discourse of resilience spawns activity in research, policy development and service delivery. If we can educate our children to be resilient, if we can structure our communities to become resilient, we may survive a world of risk and then… And then what? This survivalist doctrine paradoxically relies on an image of failure as its vision of the future. We prepare against the awful things that may one day befall us and are left prepared. And no more. Planning for survival, striving for resilience, has no vision for flourishing; progress is lost, and hope with it. Between ‘resilient’ and ‘resile’ there is something of a semantic sleight of hand as, although the two share a root, their common meanings have diverged. But the comparison is instructive. OED tells that resilient means ‘Rebounding; recoiling; returning to the original position’ and most pertinently, ‘tending to recover quickly or easily from misfortune, shock, illness, or the like; buoyant, irrepressible; adaptable, robust, hardy.’ These sound, to be sure, like positive characteristics of an individual, organisation or society. But to resile means, rather, ‘To draw back, withdraw, or distance oneself from an undertaking, declaration, course of action,’ and ‘To recoil or retreat from something with aversion; to shrink from.’ These appear almost opposed: could one retreat in an irrepressible manner? Yet in practice I think these are not so distant and, in fact, when the discourse of resilience informs policy it is more likely to produce an ability or preference for resiling than structural resilience. To see why, consider the following example. For an extreme case we may look to the survivalist enclaves already being built by individuals and small groups in various locations. The ideal is the high-lying wilderness bunker with independent power generation and long-term supplies of water, preserved food, medicines and weaponry. Apocalypse – whether financial, environmental or political in origin – is the inspiration and a future of brutal competition for scarce resources is envisaged. Protagonists could certainly conceive of their preparations as planning resilience though clearly a world of armed enclaves is not the one sought by current policy trends. But the reasons that good citizens ought to recoil in horror from survivalism should also give us pause to reconsider the discourse of resilience. Firstly, the orientation of the survivalist is decidedly inward. Whether the individual, kinship group or like-minded community plans a secure future they do so in competition with all others. Survivalists scramble now for resources so that they can keep them to themselves in a future in which they become increasingly scarce. The targets of policies to increase resilience are also typically relatively small groups, communities or even individuals and there is no reason to suppose that reliance requires a more outward-looking approach. The resilient ‘I’ cares little about the other. Secondly, even the most positive notion of resilience has as its best outcome the ability to persist in the same manner. We survive the shock and return to normal: we continue to live in the bunker. The allure of normality is sharpest when set aside the destructive potential inherent in the global risks we face. But it is normality, precisely normality, that has produced those risks. We must identify the causes...

Thread of Occupy talk at Peace History Conference...

Threads of Occupy on Prezi I was pleased to be invited to talk on Occupy at the opening panel of last week’s Peace History Conference, alongside Sam Walton (on the role of St Pauls), David Fernandez-Arias (on Occupy MCR) and Jacqui Burke giving us historical context with a reading of accounts from the Peterloo massacre. There’s lots of video available from this panel and Saturday’s talks here: http://www.peacehistoryhub.org/ My talk focused on the ideological content of occupation as a direct action tactic. You can flick through the Prezi presentation on the left, hit the Peace History Hub for video....

Published: Social Movement Studies Special Issue on Research Ethics...

From the editors’ introduction (with Jenny Pickerill): This article explores a number of key questions that serve to introduce this special issue on the ethics of research on activism. We first set out the limitations of the bureaucratic response to ethical complexities in our field. We then examine two approaches often used to justify research that demands time consuming and potentially risky participation in research by activists. We label these approaches the ethic of immediate reciprocity and the ethic of general reciprocity and question their impacts. We note, in particular, the tendency of ethics of reciprocity to preclude research on ‘ugly movements’ whose politics offends the left and liberal leanings predominant among movement researchers. The two ethics also imply different positionalities for the researcher vis-à-vis their subject movement which we explore, alongside dilemmas thrown up by multiple approaches to knowledge production and by complex issues of researcher and activist identities. The overall move to increasing complexity offered by this paper will, we hope, provide food for thought for others who confront real-world ethical dilemmas in fields marked by contention. We also hope that it will encourage readers to turn next to the wide range of contributions offered in this issue. We’re really excited about the range and quality of contributions to this issue.  The full Table of Contents is: The Difficult and Hopeful Ethics of Research on, and with, Social Movements Kevin Gillan & Jenny Pickerill Social Movements and the Ethics of Knowledge Production Graeme Chesters Reflexive Research Ethics for Environmental Health and Justice: Academics and Movement Building Alissa Cordner, David Ciplet, Phil Brown & Rachel Morello-Frosch Ethical and Political Challenges of Participatory Action Research in the Academy: Reflections on Social Movements and Knowledge Production in South Africa Marcelle C. Dawson & Luke Sinwell The Gaza Freedom Flotilla: Human Rights, Activism and Academic Neutrality Anne de Jong Sisterhood and After: Individualism, Ethics and an Oral History of the Women’s Liberation Movement Margaretta Jolly, Polly Russell & Rachel Cohen Ethics, Activism and the Anti-Colonial: Social Movement Research as Resistance Adam Gary Lewis Disclosed and Willing: Towards A Queer Public Sociology Ana Cristina Santos Asking Tough Questions: The Ethics of Studying Activism in Democratically Restricted Environments Sandra Smeltzer A Personal Reflection on Negotiating Fear, Compassion and Self-Care in Research S. J....

Just who do you think we are?

Tom asked: Just spent the morning listening to a couple of folks who were labour activists in the 40s and 50s. Now wondering how we organise politically under the sociological conditions of late modernity. If the class structure isn’t there to support the traditional labour movement (in the same way), what can we build instead? An important and tricky question, no doubt; in the following I may only succeeded in rewording it… What is it about the traditional class structure that has changed? Partly it has become much more globally dispersed, and so it is harder, though by no means impossible, to see. But the change is also about the unwillingness of people (in the rich world at least) to identify with class as a way of understanding their social position. Marxist class analysis was so powerful partly because it offered an identity that allowed people to make sense of themselves and their political opponents, to work out what their collective interests were, and to feel solidarity with others like them. And it made sense as an identity because it also fit the material conditions of everyday life. A similar story can be told about black civil rights movements, nationalist movements, women’s movements and so on. Collective identity is always a social construction, and in movements defining that identity typically involves saying not just who ‘we’ are, but also who ‘they’ are, and how we can stop them oppressing us. Reading The Communist Manifesto is still an excellent lesson in making these kinds of claims in an evocative and powerful manner. So, while class and identity movements are often seen as different kinds of thing (especially by those who see identity movements as a distraction from class struggle), class is really just another type of identity movement, albeit one that is very directly tied to the production and distribution of stuff. One of the conditions of late modernity, so we’re told, is the instability of identities in a world where people have much more choice about how they identify themselves and what groups they align with. In earlier stages of capitalism religion, social position and vocation were perhaps the key foci of identity, although most of that sat within a broader sense of national identity. Socialism (and, indeed, sociology) succeeded in pushing class to the centre of identity discourses. However, that was an identity that functioned most clearly worked best for the male industrial worker, excluding those outside traditional employment. Today, all of those identity discourses may remain options, but perhaps the most common (rich world) focus of identity is lifestyle as expressed through consumption. We can identify ‘chavs’, ‘hippies’, ‘geeks’, ‘eco-warriors’ and a million other tribes through what they choose to buy (or not to buy) and we typically have knowledge of a bunch of stereotypes about their behaviour and morality. Marketing and branding have successfully aligned brands with values, encouraging people to express their values through consumption choices. As an aside, I seem to have had various conversations with people about dating websites recently, which, of course, match people on the basis of ‘shared interests’. Such interests may most often be gauged through consumption choices: favourite films or music, hobbies (and their inevitable consumer paraphernalia), fashion tastes and so on are all routinely used as proxies for deeper values. So, organising on the basis of class or vocation have become difficult because for many, a role in economically and socially useful production is only important insofar as it enables the maintenance...

Can I blame Apple for the British Riots?

Conservatives in power, vicious cuts applied to the welfare state while regressive taxes increase, police violence perpetrated against the poor against a background of declining legitimacy. Yes, the parallels between 2011 and 1981 are irresistibly suggestive of a political explanation for the British summer riots. The triggers in 1981 were ‘heavy handed’ and often racist policing reflecting long running policing policies that systematically targeted young black men whose experience of state authority would likely have been unremittingly negative. This combined with racial tensions between communities and with the deep-set inequalities of urban life where whole areas were devoid of opportunities for meaningful work. There were instances of looting and arson but the prominent images of Brixton, Toxteth and so on is the violent clashes with police. At times small numbers of police found themselves surrounded by angry youths with improvised weapons. More often, lines of police in riot gear would tackle large groups of rioters head-on. Battles would last hours and the aim, it would seem, was primarily to hit back at the police while the usual power relationship had been reversed. This summer, after the first night of anger at the police shooting of Mark Duggan, people’s purpose on the streets seemed to be different. Rather than directing violence at police, such confrontations were often avoided as the fast moving and, at times, well organised crowds descended like bargain hunters on high street stores. Rather than an opportunity to settle scores with authorities, this looked like a rush to get free stuff, as was sometimes evident on various communications on social networks and in media interviews after the events[Guardian, Telegraph]. This difference in the character of the riots is suggestive of  a different explanation for why they occurred. As Zygmunt Bauman was quick to argue ‘these are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.’ Bauman’s contributions to the sociology of contemporary capitalism have drawn out the implications of a shift in the way in which people create and understand their own identities, which in turn frame their understandings of the world around them, their decisions about action and their identification of friends, allies, and opponents. Whereas once most people understood their identities in terms of religion, nation, social position or vocation in the present we can talk about a multitude of consumer-based identities. This analysis is understood best by clever marketer, who consciously try to create brands for products that carry a heavy load of meaning. As a result, a large portion of the value of global corporations is attributed to their brands (see Interbrand for current values.) The value of a consumer object becomes detached from either the cost of production or the utility that product has, but instead is tied to what it signals about us both to ourselves and to those who see use engaged in conspicuous consumption. Apple iThing brand construction is a little stroke of genius in this regard  – I’d be very surprised if Apple marketers didn’t come up with a list of things that the now ubiquitous ‘i’ could stand for that included identity. If we’d had the ‘myPod’ we’d have an everyday description of ownership of a thing, but by using the active, verbal form of the pronoun ‘i’ we get a much deeper signal that ‘I do Apple products’, such that ownership of the product also says something much more meaningful about the consumer , perhaps that they see themselves as technologically savvy lovers of design and...

Reminder: the budget deficit was not caused by welfare spending...

The ConDems incessantly justify cut after cut with reference to Labour’s supposed welfare profligacy. So maybe its time to remind ourselves why the budget deficit has increased dramatically… Here’s a useful graph (from the BBC) that shows the fluctuations in the budget deficit since the 1980s, with the deficit expressed as a proportion of GDP. Prudence was Gordon Brown’s watchword as Chancellor and when Labour came into power in ’97 they quickly turned their inherited deficit around. It creeps up again after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but remains less than the 7.5% peak seen in the Major years. The deficit only went wild after 2008. What could possibly have prompted this uncharacteristic change in policy? Oh yes. The government spent $850 billion, or 51.7% of GDP on bailing out the City (world bank data, converted roughly). There is of course no justification for this massive transfer of wealth from poor to rich, which is why ministers so often repeat the lie that the cuts are in some way related to overspending on the welfare state. Of course, the 3-400,000 marchers in London yesterday know this already, I hope their efforts will stop the lie becoming received...

‘Clicktivism’ talk at 6 Billion Ways...

Here is the presentation from my talk at 6 Billion Ways, you can make it full screen and explore by clicking on items and zooming in and out (a scroll wheel is handy). Or use the controls in the bottom right corner to follow a pre-defined path. If it doesn’t seem to be working here, try the external link to...