We were pleased to see that for the second RSN seminar we retained a healthy audience, in terms of both numbers and the broader mix of people than seminars tend to attract. The new exhibition in the NALGO room of the WCML, ‘Snap! – my life in the Working Class Movement Library’, also made for a bright and interesting backdrop to discussion, and it attracted praise from attendees. You only have until Halloween to see it! Here are a few pictures:
Joseph Maslen, ‘Confession to Contentment: Growing Old on the Left in Late-Twentieth Century Britain’.
Joe, of Edge Hill University, kicked us off with a talk on Margot Kettle’s project in the 1980s, interviewing Communists who had been born between 1910 and 1922. This was intended to counteract images of Communists in the 80s media, which she felt distorted the reality of their lives in the 30s. By asking that generation to reflect on and make sense of their youth, Kettle would offer her interviewees the opportunity to come together, and come to a ‘reckoning’ on their past. It was a structured process that was both public and private; personal and interpersonal, but for a public audience.
Kettle’s unspoken motivation, according to Joe, was towards the private and internal, specifically the confessional. As her project developed so too did an ambivalence towards its dual nature as both private and public. Her questions to interviewees encouraged a subjective and emotive response, and she was very choosy regarding publishers for the work. She became uncertain about the truth of project, which was her primary aim. She did not want the work to be ‘academic’: heavily footnoted and remote. This was not to be an ‘official history’ but conversations with people of that time. Was there an element of defensiveness, here?
Questions and answers:
As we might expect from an audience comprised of non-academics and academics, the talk resulted in discussion about the nature of Kettle’s project. Kettle was seen to be passionate about her interests, but was she intimidated by academic convention? Is this actually about a (not unrelated) issue: the status of the emotive within history? Kettle’s method produced personal and emotional testimonies: was this outside the scope of history as a discipline within academic circles at the time, and her work did not have a place in the academy for this reason? Did she have a novelistic bent that the work could have been channeled into, or is it more important to stake a claim for this content within history as it is practiced in Universities? Joe replied that it was a shame that academia in the 80s was not more open to this area, the ‘literariness and historicity of life stories’. Kettle was ahead of her time.
Was there evidence that interviewees wanted redemption? Joe saw contentment and evidence of enthusiasm in interviewees’ responses to Kettle’s questions. She also provided them with the opportunity to check the accuracy of her reportage; she was among her interviewees rather than above them. One question addressed this collaborative aspect, noting that Kettle used ‘we’ in her questions to interviewees, and established a collective identity by doing so. Joe noted that this identity excluded the Cambridge spies; Kettle used the phrase ‘ordinary boys and girls of the 30s’ to characterize that generation. The issue of sexuality was then raised, since the Cambridge spies were associated with homosexuality. Margot’s project didn’t address sexuality explicitly but the implicit focus was on heterosexual, monogamous relationships, since she interviewed married couples. ‘Corruption’ of the left made it vulnerable to homophobic critique, whereas Kettle was keen to stress the domesticity of Communism in Britain at that time.
Andy Merrifield, ‘The Enigma of Revolt: Occupy and Beyond…’
Andy, currently a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the University of Manchester, opened his talk with noting that, unlike Kettle’s project on ‘dying happy’, his talk would be concerned with ‘living happy’. His old teacher, David Harvey, had published The Enigma of Capital, but the ‘enigma of revolt’ will be to understand the means by which revolt will be possible and the forms it can take. Andy saw a clear divide between the 60s and 70s: the Doors wanted the world and now, but the Sex Pistols thought that there was ‘no future’. The 80s saw the return of harmony in popular music, but also the Miners’ strike. Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism was published, and on the left critical distance had been abolished. The current stance of the ruling class is to state that we are now in a ‘post-political’ position. It placates and absorbs protest, managing dissensus with the aim of preventing conflict.
For Andy, the problem is not the deconstruction of neoliberalism, as it is easy to do this using Marx’s texts, but how we might identify and challenge the agents of neoliberalism. The administration of power in this system is illusive; it is not clear who we might bring to account. In figuring out the enigma of revolt we should not enter neoliberal strongholds and demand our rights, because this is too rationalist. Neoliberalism as a doctrine is irrational and so we cannot approach it wearing our ‘Cartesian hats’. For Andy, the Occupy movement is different, demanding nothing but occupying symbolic sites. Its actions demonstrate that the supposed division between public and private is blurred; Zuccotti Park in New York is not, in fact, a public space but a private one.
Andy identified and labeled ‘archetypes of dissent’: professional revolutionaries, ‘secret agents’, ‘the 99%’, the ‘great escapees’, the ‘great refusers’ (such as Marcuse, and Bartleby in Bartleby the Scrivener), and ‘double agents’; the latter were foreseen by Marx in the Communist Manifesto. He stressed that rather than inhabiting only one of these identities, it was possible, even desirable, to ‘float in and out of them’. Movements that bring these archetypes together will have to figure out a way of relating them internally. If they are put together, in a process, then they have the capacity to create a cultural counter-flow of revolt. The concept of the ‘99%’ has a class aspect, though this becomes a division between a ‘ruling class’ and the multitude, rather than a ‘working class’ that Marx would recognize.
Questions and answers:
The first questioner suggested that the Zapatista movement saw the coalescence of the ‘archetypes of dissent’ that Andy identified. This was picked up by a later question on the Zapatistas, on its military aspects. Andy talked about their use of symbolic violence, that they are armed but this has a symbolic aspect. Another wondered about the role that anger and rage have to play in revolt. Andy thought it could be a little defeatist; rage is the ability to say no, and critical negativity is important, but we also need something positive and affirming. Rage internalized can become corrosive.
Another question related Andy’s talk to the work of Theodor Adorno, and wondered if Adorno had influenced his thought? Andy thought that Adorno was more of a cultural snob than himself, and that he prefers a more affirmative style. He prefers Herbert Marcuse, who he identified as a ‘great refuser’. In Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, the ‘great refusers’ were outcasts but Andy thinks that, today, they are part of the mainstream: sub/multi employed, made redundant, with little to gain from the current system.
One question touched on the issue of class that Andy raised, asking if he saw a role in revolt for the working class rather than the ‘middle-class kids now disadvantaged’ who are a key part of the Occupy movement. What about the role of other forms of revolt, for example, urban rioting? Andy thought it’d be interesting to see who took part in both the summer riots of 2011 and occupy. He thought that dissent can go in different directions, it can be reactionary, though there is clearly energy to be tapped, a latent political constituency.