Towards a Radical Football: What is to be done with the beautiful game?

For those of us interested in transforming society, football has often seemed a tricky one. To some it represents the world at its worst: the corruption of FIFA, racist incidents season after season, prevalent sexism, the gentrification and commodification of clubs, billionaire couldn’t-care-less owners and Rupert Murdoch. Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton certainly holds this view, as he claimed before the World Cup in South Africa in 2010: ‘Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished.’ Yet what Eagleton ommitted from his diatribe against the beautiful game was its origins in working class association. Philosopher and Liverpool fan Simon Critchley emphasises the associative, socialistic and artistic elements to football, calling it ‘working class ballet’ as well as remembering the careers of legendary footballing socialists like Bill Shankly and Brian Clough. Football is not ‘the opium of the masses’ as Eagleton would have it, instead its an arena of struggle which could offer hope for emancipation. Given this, we are required to answer Lenin’s question in this context: What is to be done (with football)? But first, it’s worth teasing out the contradiction between capital and fan which what characterises contemporary football.

Manchester City, for instance, perfectly represent the capitalist dialectic at the heart of football. Pep Guardiola, prodigy of the legendary Johan Cruyff, is widely regarded as the best manager in the world, the facilities at the Eitihad Campus are second to none and the Premier League title is all but theres. So much so that Manchester City supporters (at least the ones I chatted with on the train recently) are discussing how exactly they’d like to win the league, eyeing up another chance to see off their arch-rivals Manchester United before lifting the trophy. Such supporters have been finally offered the chance to eclispe their emminently more successful rivals after years in their shadow and in the wilderness of the football league.

Yet for all their progressive play, their gegenpressen, the silkiness of David Silva and the detail in a De Bruyne pass, City are an expression of the soft power of uber-capitalist petrostate. The undiluted beauty of their play, their unrivalled interpretation of space is predicated on cash from Sheik Mansour, Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. As Human Rights Watch put it:

‘… a Premier League club is being used as a branding vehicle to promote and effectively launder the reputation of a country perpetrating serial human rights abuses.’

Whether you think City, PSG, Bayern Munich or Barcelona will win the Champions League, its worth noting that all have been funded by money from the UAE and Qatar, whether in direct investment or in sponsorhsip. Guardiola’s beautiful progressive style of play we’ve seen at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City relies on the worst excesses of our international economic system. Plus, Pep himself was a key backer of the Qatar’s successful World Cup bid for 2022, the slave labour being used to build the country’s stadiums notwithstanding.

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Migrant workers have their passports taken from then on arrival and subjected to slave-like working conditions. They make up 90% of Qatar’s population, yet feel none of the benefits of the country’s astronomical oil wealth (Photo credit: CNN).

While this is a perfect example of whats wrong with football, it can’t be denied that the problem is more, deepset, historical and material. Even if we put its connections with petrodollars aside, the Premier League itself is essentially an invention of Greg Dyke, Rupert Murdoch and the top clubs designed to rake in as much television money as possible from English football. The live-viewer became decentred in favour of the broadcasting companies, top clubs and arm chair supporters and all this was done through a clever advertising campaign which coopted supporters genuine, passionate feelings about the beautiful game. To a thumping 90s dance background, working-class hero and massive Sheffield United fan, Sean Bean told millions of viewers across the country:

‘Its ecstasy, anguish, joy and despair… It’s theatre, art, war and love… Its our religion, we do not apologise for it, we do not deny it, they’re our team, our family, our life. Football, we know how you feel about it, we feel the same.’

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Sean Bean featuring in a Sky advert for the 1996-1997 Premier League season. 

As the Sky advert hints at, the dialectic of football is precisely in that it also creates space for working class communites to organize collectively and to share the pain, the joy and the beauty of the game. This isn’t to say that football is a left-wing paradise or that there isn’t any right-wing or fascist clubs. Italy’s right-wing ex-President Silvio Berlesconi’s was also president of AC Milan, Beitar Jerusalem’s fans proudly call themselves “the most racist club” in Israel, while Lazio and Real Madrid had connections with Fascism through Mussolini and Franco directly. Rather, it is instead to say that there is a radical germ within football that has too often been overlooked or given up on. That is, for every AC Milan there’s an Internationale Milan, who split with AC to form a club “called International, because we are brothers of the world“. For every Israeli government minister who stands with racist Beitar Jerusalem fans chanting ‘May your village be burned’, there’s the solidarity that Celtic supporters showed with the Palestinian people, many of whom have lived under occupation for over 40 years. The radical approach to football is to stress and bring out its emancipatory capacity, rather than giving up on it, or worse, calling for its abolition.

Celtic supporters adorn Palestinian flags, defying UEFA rules, in their game against Israeli side Hapoel Beershev (Photo credit: Middle East Eye)

Football, as philosophy Simon Critchley argues, is necessarily associative and socialistic. In Capital Vol. 1 Marx himself defined communism as ‘an association of free beings’ but none have captured this sense better than by legends of the game such as Bill Shankly and Brian Clough. Bill Shankly, former manager of Liverpool and my beloved Huddersfield Town, explained it thusly:

‘The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day.’

Likewise, Brian Clough said:

‘I think socialism comes from the heart. People who’ve I’ve met sometimes with a few bob and who’ve got on don’t think everyone else should have a few bob and get on. And I think the opposite. I think everyone can have it. And that’s where socialism comes from. Everybody should have a book, everyone should have a nice classroom to go to.’

Almost paraphasing Clough, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp recently revealed a similar impulse:

‘I’m on the left, of course… I believe in the welfare state… I would never vote for a party because they promised to lower the top tax rate. My political understanding is this: if I am doing well, I want others to do well, too. If there’s something I will never do in my life it is vote for the right.’

British football’s connection with socialist politics has been recently revived by the digital rise of former Everton and Wales goalkeeper Neville Southall, who’s since been given his own blog by Huck magazine where he tackles issues like homelessness and homophobia. Southall offers the British left a rare earnest honesty, he’s willing to learn but also willing to stand up for what he believes in. As he points out, ‘Ex-footballers have not been known for their tolerance or support of LGBTQ+ people’. Yet that doesn’t stop Big Nev challenging the stereo-types of his profession and class, giving us a moving Christmas message and seeing off  prize idiot Michael Owen while he’s at it.

As Southall would surely agree, the associative and socialistic core of football can be accessed more clearly at the grassroots. Huddersfield Town Supporters Association has worked alongside Cowshed Loyal (renamed from ‘Cowshed Boys’ to promote gender inclusivity) and the local foodback and to fight hunger and period poverty in the local area. Fans Supporting Foodbanks similarly orginated with an alliance across Merseyside between the Everton Supporters Trust and the Spirit of Shankly, Liverpool fan’s cooperative union. Great political work is also being done at the level of small-scale clubs such as the anti-racist, anti-fascists at Clapton F.C , the socialist feminist AFC Unity, who take common values and their communities seriously.

Having fully appreciated the dialectic of football, we an return to the Leninist question of ‘What is to be done?’ to see if the radical seeds embedded in football can be sown by practical policies.Firsty, grassroots football must be unambiguously supported and invested in. The Labour Manifesto advocated 5% of the Premier League profits from television money be invested back into grassroots football. Similarly, Momentum Football, an idea talked about in Labour left circles most recently by Matt Zarb-Cousin could create a political, social and sporting place for local communities.A possible model can be found in Germany. The Budesliga requires that the fans own at least 51% of their club. This ensures that private capital cannot put profit before football. More than this, it ensures that the fans are collectively put in control of the club’s direction, they are more than simply customers. This is surely what makes German football great: low ticket prices, great atmospheres, proud fan cultures and high attendences.

Why is fan ownership important? Because, as Bobby Robson knew, fans are football clubs:

“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”

If we follow the legendary Bobby Robson’s definition of football, a program which gives power back to supporters at the associative grassroots is the least we can do with the beautiful game.



Transgression, Trump and Triggering Libs: What can Patrick Bateman tell us about the alt-right?

To understand the contemporary alt-right and its institutional expression (President Donald Trump) it’s worth revisting American Psycho (1991), a text, riddled with Trump references, trangressions of the highest order and a contradictory and confusing sense of self.  Released to an explosion of controversy due to its violent and misogynistic themes, critics nonetheless praised its attempt to illuminate and challenge prevailing societal norms. We might read the text as a portrayal of the ultimate, fucked-up extremities of the political Subject of late capitalist, post-modernity. Patrick Bateman, Wall Street banker-cum-serial-killer, humorously and revoltingly lurches from one existential crisis to the next. Narcissistic, avaristic, obsessed with a love of Donald Trump, Bateman leads a blood-lusting and drug-induced existence with a distinct absence of friendship, love, fraternity and community. The reader is left not knowing what really happened and what didn’t, and whether it really mattered anyway.

In modernity, the self is imbued with a distinct sense of absence, attributed, as most clearly in Eagleton (2014), to the death of God. The self in Sartre and Camus is empty but is left with an amazing and terrifying form of freedom. Whether in Hemingway or Hughes, Plath or Picasso, in modernity, there is always a god-filled hole in the self. In postmodernity, the husk of the self disappears entirely and selfhood is multiple, contradictory and incomplete selves. In such a philosophical conception, nihilism finds its home. Patrick Bateman, the protagonist and unreliable narrator in Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho (1991), embodies this form of nihilism. Health and fitness-obsessed yet addicted to prescription (and hard) drugs, deeply racist yet liberal and politically correct, completely narcistic yet self-loathing, Bateman’s character epitomises the self (or lack thereof) in the postmodern, late capitalist epoch. Examples of this are not hard to find in the text:

  • ‘Just cool it with the anti-semitic remarks’ Bateman tells his colleague on page 36, a phrase immortalized by the 2000 film. Yet by page 146 he’s hurling anti-semitic abuse at the Jewish owners of a deli.
  • ‘There wasn’t a clear identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibily, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that my normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure.’ (Easton Ellis 1991: 271).
  • Bateman also confesses his psychotic mindset before realising even his confession itself was inauthentic, incomplete and pointless: ‘… there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me… But even after admitting this, … I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling’ (Easton Ellis 1991: 362).

Hence, what Bateman represented, and Easton Ellis sought to convey, was how ‘hyperreal’ (Baudrillard 1994: 1) the postmodern age is. For Bauman (1992: 151), the hyperreal is perceived as too real to be real: reality itself becomes perceived as a simulation and we have no way of knowing whether any of the events of American Psycho actually took place. The epistemic haze and confusion characterised by hyperreality allows a form of transgressive nihilism to set in.

Enter Donald Trump. Here we have a president emblematic of the amoral, transgressive, postmodern simulacrum that American Psycho displays. That is, we all can’t believe it’s real and when reminded of it, it seems all too real. We come crashing down to a strange earth-like place with a bang. Trump’s interventions in public life seem hyperreal, mediated as they are through media spectacles and 140 characters. We think, ‘I can’t believe he’s said that’, or more specifically, ‘I cant believe the President of the United States said that’. We hear transgressions of liberals norms of racial, sexual equality and freedom of religion but also general decorum. There’s transgression every time Trump makes a comment about ‘pussy-grabbing’ or berates the ‘son of bitches’ NFL players protesting racial injustice, or expresses his desire to date his daughter, or types a tweet that Bill Clinton’s promiscuity was Hillary’s fault or calls for Hillary to be jailed.

Returning to American Psycho and reading the text more closely, we find that there is more than hyperreal transgression that connects Patrick Bateman to Donald Trump. In fact, Bateman is positively in love with him.

  • He lists as one of his ‘priorities before christmas… get[ting] myself invited to the Trump Christmas Party aboard their yacht’ (Easton Ellis 1991: 170)
  • He reads Trump’s the Art of the Deal when being investigated by a private detective.
  • He lies that he’s going to ‘a party that Donald Trump’s having’ (Easton Ellis 1991: 219).

Incidentally and interestingly, author of the book Brett Easton Ellis also appears to enjoy how the Trump presidency transgresses, in his words, the ‘Hollywood liberal establishment… HRC… intersectionality, identity politics, PC virtue signaling.’

Moving beyond Trump and towards his online supporters, American Psycho is also cited by Angela Nagle as a key text in the literary canon of the alt-right, though we might fairly assume that most of them only watched the Christian Bale and Reece Witherspoon film. Nagle’s Kill All Normies, though of course not without its many many flaws (read about them here), is instructive on the alt-right’s affinity to transgression, or in online parlance, ‘edgelordism’. Her description of the alt-right seems spot on to those who’ve had the misfortune of encountering their ilk online:

‘… a strange vanguard of teenage gamers, pseudonymous swastika-posting anime lovers, ironic South Park conservatives, anti-feminist pranksters, nerdish harassers and meme-making trolls whose dark humor and love of transgression for its own sake made it hard to know what political views were genuinely held and what were merely, as they used to say, for the lulz.‘

Integral to alt-right Edgelordism is a latent kind of Nietzscheanism: Why speak truth to power when you’re powerful? Why punch up when it’s easier (and cooler) to punch down? Political demands as varied as trans rights and cancelling third world debt become new forms of ressentiment for an online political demographic that is overwhelmingly white, straight, male and middle-class. Any progressive political demands are assumed to be symbolic of a performative, slave morality – or in alt-right parlance ‘PC culture’ or ‘cultural Marxism’ (the latter of course being an anti-semitic conspiracy theory.)

Indeed, so pre-occupied with ‘triggering libs’, their counter-arguments melt into air when properly pushed to their logical conclusion. Leftist guardian journalist Gary Younge explains that black slaves were integral to the founding of white America: black slaves even built the White house. When informed of the invaluable labour of African slaves in building America as we know it, white supremacist and alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer could only respond to Younge, ‘well we [white people] made you do it.’ Such a hollowed-out, bankrupt pseudo-Nietzschean sense of the will to power is representative of a politics with no robust ontology or epistemology, founded on little else but amoral transgression. More specifically, a transgression animated almost entirely by ‘triggering libs’, powerless when challenged with a proper analysis but clearly not without its appeal for the white male identitarians of the cybersphere.

Returning to American Psycho, and coming full circle, we find in the alt-right, rather than the ‘thick’ ideology of 20th century Nazis (blood, soil, sacrifice, cleansing etc.) an Edgelord, ironic vacuity. Not so much critique as distilled negation. If all you’re doing is transgressing and ‘triggering libs’, it can be hard to for opponents of the alt-right to nail them to a post. Even the Nazi label is often embraced by the alt-right with ironic Edgelord detachment that seems as much ‘lulz’ as ‘lebensraum‘. This might explain why, as Nagle recognises, the online alt-right is not nearly a coherent movement. This is not to say there isn’t an overwhelming Neo-nazi problem in the world today. This was exhibited beyond all doubt as chants of ‘blood and soil’ rang out across Charlottesville and a Democratic Socialist Member and trade unionist paid with her life. More recently of course, 60,000 took to the streets of Warsaw to chant fascist slogans and a hatred of Muslims. Clearly, we have a nazi problem.

Nonetheless, the online incarnations of the alt-right often attract disparate, younger sympathisers from weird corners of the internet and political landscape who lack the discipline and coherence of 20th century fascism.  This is not to say they do not present any danger, they clearly do. It is to say that we must understand them, much like Patrick Bateman, as of the postmodern capitalist era, as hyperreal figures who can only feed off transgression, Trump and triggering libs. And because there is little substantive to what they have to say, they can be defeated in argument, as Gary Younge showed. Defeating the arguments of these people while not promoting them or succumbing elements of their agenda (which Nagle arguably does), is a major task of this political moment.

– Baudrillard, J (1994) Simulacra and Simulation. Michagan: The University of Michagan

– Bauman, Z (1992) Imitations of Postmodernity. Oxford: Routledge

– Easton Ellis, B (1991) American Psycho.

– Eagleton, T (2014) Culture and the Death of God. London: Yale University Press

– Nagle, A (2017) Kill All Normies. New York: Zero Books

Orwell: Uses and Abuses

George Orwell, one of the most revered, celebrated, ubiquitous, over-egged, over-parodied and overrated of all the twentieth century writers. Invoking Orwell in an online argument, as a friend pointed out, is the new ‘but what about Hitler?’. Painfully English, expensively educated and universally respected, Orwell has become a powerful signifier of Reasonable, Sensible Soft-Left Politics which has proved irresistible to commentators and politicians across the political spectrum. Orwell has become what is known in Laclau and Mouffe’s Discourse Theory as a ‘floating signifier’: an empty concept only given meaning when it is anchored by other ideological assumptions or ‘nodal points’. In other words, Orwell’s name conjures ideas of objectivity, anti-authoritarianism and sensible dissent. Invokers of Orwell can therefore claim these traits as their own and deny them to their political opponents. In an era of political flux and fluidity, when the technocratic liberal centre is beset by challengers on both sides, returning to Orwell appears to many as a return to sanity. From far-right to centre left, Orwell has been instrumentalized to bash the contemporary, transformational left for supposedly betraying its old values and endorsing authoritarianism, doctrinairism and ‘loony leftism’. Relatedly, Orwell is a shield used to hide behind for deserters of the left seeking to avoid the criticism of their old comrades. Perhaps after wading through the public discourse on Orwell and recognising his many, many faults (anti-feminism, homophobia, racism, his Orwellian ‘snitch list’of leftists he gave the Ministry of Information etc.), we can review whether there’s anything worth salvaging.

In the age of Trump, Orwell scholars are clamouring to make the writer relevant once again. Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia Nineteen-Eighty Four, it is said, provides a stark warning of what is now called the ‘post-truth era’. Orwell scholars, seizing their moment in the sun, put historical and literary accuracy aside and pressed home the comparisons between a totalitarian dystopia and Trump’s nascent administration. Commentators in the US followed suit, one in the Washington Post claimed Trump’s administration has meant America has gone ‘full Orwell’. A few flagrant lies were apparently enough to render our society Oceania under Ingsoc, allowing some of the most duplicitous politicians in history (Tony Blair etc.) off the hook. The public relations and advertising industry, which indeed influenced Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, also get off scot free in this reading. Trump’s erstwhile opponent, Hillary Clinton couldn’t help but jump aboard. Her new book, What Happened, is an attempt to write the history of the election before anyone else can. ‘Attempting to define reality’, she writes, ‘is a core feature of authoritarianism’. Yet as Clinton well knows  —and Orwell emphasized— liberal democratic governments also seek to bend reality to their own material and ideological ends (see The Iraq War and, in Orwell’s time, The British Empire). She continued:

‘The goal [of Trumpian politics] is to make you question logic and reason and to sow mistrust toward exactly people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts, who seek to guide public policy based on evidence…’

It’s harder to imagine a worse or more bizarre misreading of Orwell’s work than: ‘leaders, the press and experts should be trusted’. The implicit assumption of the ‘post-truth’ thesis is that Western politics was based entirely on truth before 2016. It goes without saying that this notion would be entirely foreign to Orwell.

Orwell the signifier has also been instrumentalized by Trump’s supporters on the far-right. Paul Joseph Watson, lips-tickle of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, online alt-right troll and general stain on humanity, tried to bash antifascism using the shield of Orwell. Watson perhaps forgot that Orwell joined a Marxist militia to fight the Franco-led fascists in the Spanish Civil War, a chapter in his life recounted in A Homage to Catalonia. In these memoirs, Orwell explains why he signed up to fight:

‘When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist — after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct.’

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Orwell fought with the POUM (The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) a Spanish Republican Marxist Militia  (Photo from

Attempting to somehow separate Orwell, the anti-fascist solider, from contemporary antifascist organizations required Watson to go down the route of fudging and misreading, selecting quotes from dodgy quote websites to dupe his Alt-Right YouTube fans. In insisting that Orwell would have defended the fascists right to free speech, Watson demonstrated he hadn’t read the passage in Orwell’s proposed preface to Animal Farm, ‘The Freedom of the Press’, where he explains his position on this:

‘Now, when one demands liberty of speech and of the press, one is not demanding absolute liberty. There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure.’

Most reprehensibly, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi and KKK march — which resulted in the death of an anti-fascist counter-protestor, Heather Heyer — Watson denied that fascists were present at all. Perhaps he missed the hundreds of neo-Nazis who sought to terrorize the locals by chanting ‘blood and soil’ (a well-known Nazi slogan) on their nightime, torch-lit march.

The frame of George Orwell was also used in left of centre think pieces to mock and derail Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Left in general. Pseudo-woke Telegraph writer Michael Deacon mocked Jeremy Corbyn for being ‘bearded’, ‘vegetarian’ and the type of socialist that Orwell claimed drove the working-class away from socialism. This was of course a selective reading of Orwell but also Orwell at his most wrongheaded. There are far better reasons why the 20th century working class did not opt for socialism: class consciousness, ideology, the public relation industry, nationalism, socialism being bought off by social democracy and the failure of Soviet Communism etc.. While it would be spiteful to mention, Corbyn did best amongst those who were the most deprived at the recent general election, making Deacon look petty and smug. Others suggested that Corbyn was a crusty, old crank who is stuck in the past. That is, he is too much like Orwell. As the Labour Party develops policy on alternative models of ownership and automation, while continuing to garner the support of young people, the centre-left Orwell fans look to be wrong again.

Those of the same centre-left ilk have also misread Orwell in order to weaponise him for their anti-socialist agenda. Socialist revolution, for Blairite Robert Webb (Jeremy from the Peep Show):

‘… ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder. In brief, and I say this with the greatest respect, please read some fucking Orwell.’

Of course, Orwell never said this, he repeatedly emphasized his commitment to anti-capitalism. Indeed, part of the reason he went to Barcelona to fight fascism was to defend the 1936 socialist revolution. Plus, Animal Farm is as much pro-Trotsky as it is anti-Stalin: Trotsky’s ideas are presented as progressive and innovative through the character of Snowball and the metaphor of the windmill. ‘Read some Effing Orwell’ has since become the catchphrase of Twitter sensation Simon Hedges, the parodied embodiment of the Reasonable, Sensible Soft-Left Politics that Orwell’s name so often evokes. It communicates a basic premise, ‘stop asking for so much’, ‘things are basically okay the way they are’. This belies the radical germ embedded in Orwell’s work and life. Orwell explained he joined the Independent Labour Party because he was committed to abolishing capitalism: socialism to him meant more than setting up Sure Start centres. The summoning of Orwell to bash the ‘loony left’ who ask for too much change is therefore obnoxious and ludicrous.

Relatedly, Orwell has been used as a shield to hide behind for those who have deserted their leftist comrades. Despite years of being a pivotal figure on the anti-war, anti-imperialist left, Christopher Hitchens supported the War on Terror and drew on Orwell in support of his decision. It was only after supporting the Iraq war and deserting comrades in the field, like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, that he wrote about Why Orwell Matters. Less importantly, Nick Cohen, who likes nothing better than sticking it to the contemporary left, is constantly evoking Orwell — ‘Orwell would have hated you!!!!!’— is in his barely comprehensible drunken rants to defend his back from critics on the left and the right.

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Christopher Hitchens realised Why Orwell Matters only after disparaging his old leftist friends and comrades and supporting the War on Terror and the Iraq War

Orwell would not have been unable to grasp the idea that his name had become a very fluid political concept in its own right. In a rather problematic yet celebrated essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, Orwell himself demonstrates that he was aware of how concepts like ‘democracy’, ‘science’, ‘equality’ could be rendered meaningless by ideological point-scoring. Nonetheless, he did not live long enough to see his own name become a floating signifier in 21st century online arguments. Perhaps, after commenting on the commentary on Orwell we might see if there is anything left we can recover.

Firstly though, it’s worth dispensing with the common image of Orwell as a Sensible left-wing sage. One of the reasons Orwell has come to embody the objective, anti-authoritarian, common sense writer is because his work was instrumentalized by the capitalist west in the Cold War. Research from 2000 elucidates how CIA agents even bought the film rights to Animal Farm from Orwell’s widow in order to alter the ending, tone down the anti-capitalism and intensify the anti-Soviet Communism. Furthermore, the idea that Orwell would be uncomfortable with his work becoming propaganda belies the fact that he worked as a ‘propagandist’ at the BBC in the 1940s and criticised British wartime propaganda for not being convincing enough. His commitment to truth and justice is also made questionable by his infamous ‘cryto-communist’ list which he handed to the British security services. The list includes former Labour leader Michael Foot and Paul Robeson, who was, in a blatant show of racism, referred to as ‘anti-white’. Others were included on the spurious —and inexcusable— basis that they were Jewish or homosexual. Add to this his anti-feminism (see the portrayal of women through Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four), his hatred of left-wing academic work and it might be hard to see why Orwell matters.

And yet, despite all its flaws, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the seminal portrayal of the totalitarian dystopia. Animal Farm offers an accessible allegorical take on the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet Union under Stalin. Homage to Catalonia is a canonical anti-fascist text which provides an inspiring and moving account of socialist Barcelona which Orwell described as ‘a workers state… a state of affairs worth fighting for.’ Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, while not without their faults, document working class life in the mode of what has since become known as cultural studies. Burmese Days might be interpreted as incomplete, problematic and proto-anti-imperialism. Maybe, in an era of neo-colonial resource grabs, rising white nationalism and authoritarianism, plus an incurious, conformist and wrongheaded pundit class, this stuff could be useful. But please don’t go round telling everyone to read some effing Orwell.

Reflections on the Privatisation of Mental Health

Allen Ginsberg’s (1984) poem, Howl, famously begins with the line:

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.’

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A young Allen Ginsberg (photo: youtube)

What we should glean from Ginsberg is that mental health is not simply an interior, it’s not an affliction of the deeper, inner, soul as much as a symptom of the society we live in. Suffering from bouts of mental illness himself as well as witnessing it being visited upon friends, Ginsberg deals with the issue with constant reference to 1950s American society. This is an important insight as Mental Health Awareness Week draws to a close. To concentrate wholly on the interior obscures the material and ideological structures that can initiate mental illness.

In stark contrast to Ginsberg, the contemporary debate on mental health seems to want to ignore or dismiss society entirely. It all becomes an issue for the private individual who must deal with it in ‘their own way’. It’s as if, to borrow Eagleton’s phrase (1991: 241), mental illness simply ‘drops from the skies’. The common view that notion that mental health is something that ‘can affect everyone’ (the presumption being it affects everyone equally) seems to somehow absolve the unequal, oppressive and stressful character of modern society. Mental illness can affect everyone but some are more at risk than others. Some are more able to access treatment than others.

The role of racism, poverty, sexuality or just the anxious, weird, cyber-fucked-world we inhabit cannot be ignored. Part of ending the stigma is the recognition that poorer sufferers, apart from the added stress of financial precarity, are unable to access treatment quickly and without financial cost. Go and see how long the local NHS waiting list for mental health treatment is in your area. The recognition that people of colour and LGBTQ+ people are more at risk is also required. Furthermore, there must also be a recognition that neoliberal economics requires a credit market which inflicts the mental distress of astronomical debts onto the general population (Harvey 2010: 17). Household debts are a record high in the UK right now. As Dawn Foster wrote in the Guardian, interventions from Royals and the like obscure the fact that the austerity policies of the Conservative Party have hollowed out the welfare state and the health service and exacerbated the conditions in which mental illness can fester. Warnings from mental health professionals have been ignored, even as the situation has worsened and suicides increased throughout the coalition government’s tenure.  The headline of a well-argued piece put it nicely:

‘Making efforts to break down the stigma around mental health means fuck all if there’s no funding’.

Similarly, research conducted by the homeless charity Shelter emphasise the disastrous impact housing pressures have had on mental health.

Infographic belongs to Shelter: a caption

These housing pressures have been unaddressed by Tory governments keen to keep property prices high for the benefit of their property-owning members and voters. Even social media apps like Instagram, with its emphasis on ideal body types, have been shown to be harmful to young minds. Without the recognition of these societal factors, the issue becomes depoliticizes or ‘privatised’. Racism, poor housing, cuts to healthcare and welfare, toxic societal conceptions of gender roles and astronomical (student) debts have created a climate in which people can see no way out. Material and social circumstance cannot be ignored. As Megan Nolan wrote in Vice:

‘According to the symptom checklist, I suffer depression and anxiety. But even so, I couldn’t stop myself from saying to my doctor: I don’t think this is because I’m depressed. I think it’s because I’m poor. My anxiety about being poor makes it impossible to work, which makes me poorer, and the cycle continues.’

Mental health, in other words, is a political issue, not a private one we simply need to ‘destigmatize’. More needs to be done.

Before proceeding it’s worth noting the following: this piece simply wants to convey some reflections on mental health with a historical and literary perspective. It’s intent is to revaluate and politicize discourses of mental health, to illuminate historical perspectives that may have otherwise been in left the dark. Walter Benjamin (1973: 57) wrote that: ‘For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.’ It is in this spirit that the piece proceeds.

Before his recent and tragic suicide, Mark Fisher wrote about the important task of politicizing mental health. He wrote (2009: 21) that capitalist societies sought to ‘privatise’ mental illness:

‘as if [it] were caused only by chemical imbalances in the individual’s neurology and/or by their family background – any question of social systemic causation is ruled out.’ [my emphasis]

Mental illness and its proliferation among the younger generation and the treatments have been ‘medicalised’ as a ‘chemical imbalance’, yet it’s easy to see the benefits of this for capital. Individuals automatically blame themselves, thinking: ‘it’s all in your head’. It’s as if the external world the society we live in is completely irrelevant to the workings of your own mind. As Fisher acknowledges (2009: 21), depression is caused by a lack of serotonin but is it a stretch to imagine the society we live in might have something to do with that? Or, to take the point further, is it a stretch to wonder whether society’s response to mental health can often tell us more about society than it does about our own brains?

Foucault argues (1971), for instance that even the rational, scientific study of mental health as a phenomenon was a result of the contingent social and economic circumstances of modernity. His Madness and Civilisation (1988) elucidates the extent to which mental illness has been interpreted through various ideological frames throughout history. In the Renaissance, the mentally ill were afforded knowledge beyond the sane’s comprehension. In many cases, they were revered as an expression of the limits of human reason. In the modern era, the mentally ill have been rationalized, hospitalized or taken out of society all together. Many found themselves entrapped in what Foucault (1988: 38) called ‘the Great Confinement’ including ‘one out of every hundred inhabitants of the city of Paris’ who were forced to endure ‘arbitrary measures of imprisonment’. Foucault (1988: 45-46) explains how across Europe, workhouses, ‘hospitals, prisons and jails’ could ‘contain those condemned by common law, young men who disturbed their families’ peace or who squandered their goods, people without profession, and the insane.’ This continued into the 20th century. Opened in 1904, Storthes Hall near Kirkburton in Huddersfield had women who’d had children out of wedlock also confined within its walls. In many cases, the poor were conflated with mentally ill as ‘pauper lunatics’ they were treated as one and the same. Storthes’s Hall’s records are rather cryptic and antiquated but they give you a flavour for what could land you inside:

‘Domestic trouble 14

Mental anxiety and worry 27

Intemperance in drink 14

Adverse circumstances 5

Religious excitement 2

Fright and nervous shock 1

Self abuse (sexual) 3’ (Littlewood 2003: 29)

What this illuminates is how political and historically contingent the position of the mentally ill is. Apart from this, it also attests to the shaky foundations that uphold the relationship between the ‘mad’ and the ‘civilised’.

Another mentally ill contemporary of Ginsberg and Foucault was Sylvia Plath. As a woman, Plath offers us another avenue through which we can study mental illness and the societal response to it. The patriarchal character of 1960s society was also a key factor in triggering Plath’s mental illness and her eventual suicide. The Bell Jar’s (1966) political message may be far subtler than Ginsberg, Fisher or Foucault but its existence cannot be denied. She recalls how her university required nude photos from its female students and was more like a finishing school which tried to turn into students into nice ladies than critical and thoughtful creators and innovators (Plath 1966). Another particularly repugnant, all too real passage recounts a case of rape (Plath 1966). Recent revelations also reveal her entrapment in an abusive relationship with fellow poet Ted Hughes, inspiring such classic poems as ‘The Jailor’ which compared the husband to a prison guard (Plath 1965). Hughes and Plath separating after the former’s infidelity was revealed and Plath’s mental health worsened. The pills Plath was proscribed in winter 1963 – monoamine oxidase inhibitor – would never be given dished out to anyone with suicidal tendencies now since they can cause hyperactivity. This contributed to her eventual and infamous suicide in the gas oven of her London abode. Thus, once again Plath’s mental illness cannot be separated from the society in which it manifested itself.

To further explore mid-to-late twentieth century’s conceptions of mental illness, it’s worth retuning to Ginsberg. ‘Howl’ (1984) has themes of repressed sexual identities, particularly homosexuality. There’s references to men with ‘big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin’ and those ‘who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy’. Howl is to Ginsberg in many ways a stream of consciousness. A consciousness that society, refused to let him have: it was still illegal to have or even talk about homosexual sex in public in the UK and the United States. The poem was banned in many places and Ginsberg was taken to court for writing it. Foucault was a contemporary of Ginsberg, a homosexual with a preference for sado-masochism. Much like Ginsberg, Foucault repressed his sexuality during his adolescence and in turn developed mental health problems which would come and go throughout his life. Much like Ginsberg, Foucault would often self-medicate hard drugs as a way of dealing with his condition. Having grown up in a nice bourgeois household, his family could afford to send him to one of the best psychiatrists in France, Jean Delay at the Hopital Saint-Anne in Paris. At the root of his mental illness though, which was ‘medicalized’ and ‘biologized’ by his visit to a medical professional, was French society’s less than tolerant approach toward his own homosexuality. In a later debate with Chomsky, Foucault said (1971):

‘Psychiatry, for instance, is also apparently meant to improve mankind and the knowledge of the psychiatrists. Psychiatry is also a way to implement a political power to a particular social group.’

Like Ginsberg, for Foucault, society’s homophobia was a major motor in the acceleration of his depressive states. For both figures, binaries of sanity and madness, gay and straight was compounded by their self-medicated drug abuse. Put another way, the society they lived in basically treated homosexuality as if it was a mental illness. Statistics show that LGBTQ+ people today still disproportionately abuse drugs as a self-medication mechanism. The solution, for both Foucault and Ginsberg, was a politicization of mental health which is undoubtedly task of both ‘Howl’ and Madness and Civilisation. As Foucault explained (1971):

‘It seems to me that the real political task in our contemporary society is to criticise the workings of institutions, particular the ones that appear neutral and independent, and to attack them in such a way that the political violence will finally be unmasked so that one can fight against them.’

Political violence for Foucault is surely broadly defined. Violence is undoubtedly inherent in; refusing to sufficiently fund mental health services, cutting welfare payments to disabled people, denying financial assistance to the mentally ill, straddling swathes of population with vast amounts of debt and allowing discriminative attitudes to perpetuate and reproduce themselves etc. These policies show that the government is not simply a ‘neutral’ arbiter. Fisher also saw that emancipatory politics could illuminate the inadequacies in our approach towards mental health. Foucault, Ginsberg, Fisher, even Plath, recognised there was a false neutrality to debates surrounding mental health. This neutrality absolved society of the blame for its causation. Fisher writes (2009: 17), almost paraphrasing Foucault:

‘… emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency…’

Understanding mental health as a political issue can therefore emancipate us from the inadequacies of the status quo.

  • Benjamin, W (1973) ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. in: Illuminations. Edited by Arendt. Trans. Zohn. New York: Fontana Collins.
  • Eagleton, T (1991) Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso
  • Fisher, M (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? London: Zero Books.
  • Foucault, M (1971) ‘Human Nature: Justice versus Power – Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault.’ Available –
  • Foucault, M (1988) Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage Books
  • Ginsberg, A (1984) ‘Howl’ in Collected Poems, 1947-1980. New York: Available –

  • Harvey, D (2010) The Enigma of Capitalism and the Crises of Capitalism. Oxford: Oxford Books
  • Littlewood, Ann (2003) Storthes Hall Remembered. Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield
  • Plath, S (1966) The Bell Jar. London: Faber and Faber
  • Plath, S (1965) Ariel. London: Faber and Faber

Review: Simon Armitage at the Brontë Parsonage Museum

The Unaccompanied

Simon Armitage (2017) The Unaccompanied. London: Faber and Faber

Simon Armitage (2017) Mansions in the Sky. Branwell Brontë Exhibit.Bronte Parsonage Museum. Haworth, West Yorkshire.

They say you should never meet your heroes but upon hearing the The Brontë Parsonage Museum was hosting Simon Armitage, it was hard to resist. After greedily releasing two collections of poetry this week, his exhibit on Branwell Brontë, the ‘fail son’, opium-addicted, Brontë brother was also opened. His reading dealt with the complexity, speed and inequality of modern life, set against the background of West Yorkshire’s rolling Pennine hills. The eccentricity and telluric quality of Armitage’s writing was juxtaposed with the dizzying experience of the modern metropolis. You came away with a sense that this was a poet who, after translating and playwriting for many years, had come back to his stomping ground with a political point to prove.

Armitage filled the silences between his poems with the improvised wit we’ve come to expect from his prose works. Gig (2008), All Points North (1998) and Walking Home (2013) were written with what he describes as his ‘bleak sense of humour’. Yet he always manages to somehow keep it serious enough to avoid the trap of gimmick. Armitage typically combines hilarity with the dry and the dismal. ‘The Poets Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party’, full of innuendo, is the stand out funny one of this collection. However, The Unaccompanied also demonstrates Armitage’s ability for a more systematic social commentary.

Reading in soft Huddersfieldian tones, he juxtaposes the rich with the poor, the rural with the urban and the tragedy with the farce. Armitage himself described the work as a ‘recession collection’, a ‘sociological’ recantation of British society since 2008. Or at least post-crash British society as he saw it through his gritty, Northern Realist lens. You can see where he’s coming from. It’s easy to think that in a decade where wage growth has been at its lowest since the invention of the steam engine, poetry is a self-indulgent piss-around for the moneyed-classes. Yet it remains as vital as ever.

Beginning with ‘Thank You For Waiting’, a satirisation not only of airlines but of the inequality engendered by neoliberal capitalism, he was subtle yet bitingly political. He amusingly portrayed the segregation of air travel by social class in the United States through the medium of substances from ‘Gold’ and ‘Silver’ to ‘Sweat’ and ‘Dust’. ‘Nurse at a Bus Stop’ speaks of a young woman who will always ‘hold the hand of cancer till the line goes flat’ even as the social and the political, indeed history itself, works against her. Risking being a ‘Jilted bridge of public transport’, she slogs every day to counter the ‘humanitarian crisis’ the Red Cross reported in British hospitals. The poem defended those who wear their NHS ‘fob watch’ as ‘a medal to your breast’. It vindicated those still left with the faith to fight for the NHS, even as successive governments have pulled the rug from under it. The audience’s collective murmur of miserable agreement capped off the poem, showing how well Armitage has managed to keep his finger on the public pulse.

In a sense, The Unaccompanied speaks for what has come to be known since Brexit as the communities left behind. That said, he’s not simply representing the Brexiteer. Rather his attention is on those left behind, socially and politically, in general. The clue here is in the title of the collection. We’re taken on a journey through almost anonymous West Yorkshire villages, to Poundland where we meet ‘a duty manager with a face like Doncaster’. Then there’s Wakefield Westgate railway station which recently moved, almost as if it was sick of being neighbours with the murderers and rapists that inhabit Wakefield’s high security prison. Armitage recounts his meeting with serial killer Robert Maudsley, which took place in earshot of the platform announcements, in ‘Solitary’. What comes through is Maudsley’s banality as well as his empty existence ‘in his glass case’. We are left pitying the life of those detained in solidarity confinement, if not Maudsley himself. Here we find that the miserable, macabre and mundane are transmuted by Armitage into the sublime.

His commentary on modernity steps it all up a notch. The Unaccompanied’s enigmatic and ambiguous cover itself is worth thinking about. When asked about it, he recounts and explains the numerous and conflicting interpretations of the ‘cosmonaut’ set against the background of ‘embryonic pink’. Kept alive by a mechanic umbilical cord, it’s easy to relate to this anonymous, almost post-human figure, left stranded by the machinery of his own making. ‘The Emergency’s’ enigmatic last line ‘What is it we do now?’ is reminiscent of Marx’s definition of modernity: ‘All that is solid melts into air’. Perhaps the collection should be read as a search for solidity in a world of fluid and flux. ‘To-do-list’, the fastest poem he read, attests to this. A whirlwind of errands where to eat and breathe is ‘optional’, the poem’s theme of speed only seeks to reflect that of contemporary life. Similarly, ‘Old Boy’ reads like a rant from a Dad struggling to keep up with the news of the day, never mind technological advances. Yet we can relate to how the complexitity of modern life can make us feel like ‘a monkey with a jigsaw’. To appreciate the poem’s frustration fully, it’s worth listening to a fast-paced version from Armitage’s band, The Scaremongers, on the track ‘From the Shorelines of Venus’.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Branwell Brontë, Armitage curated an exhibit at the Brontë Parsonage Museum where we adjourned after the reading. Even in these poems he wrote for Branwell Brontë, Armitage can’t escape the 21st century frame. This would seem anachronistic if it wasn’t so plain funny. In one fail swoop Armitage bounces from Wordsworth and the Brontës, to The Smiths and Premier League football. ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ recounts a letter Branwell sent to William Wordsmith, who was more than uninterested in writing back. Armitage can’t resist mixing the low and highbrow and he seems to work to cultivate an ‘everyman’ reading voice. Contemplating his self-worth, a 21st century version of the Brontë brother pontificates about Manchester United shelling out £85million for Paul Pogba. ‘Wallet’ continues the theme, empty but for a condom and coke-covered credit card, Branwell’s character is brought to life through the prism of 21st century.

Armitage’s modesty and humble beginnings in provincial West Yorkshire can disguise the intellectualism that lays behind his poetry. His translations of poems from Ancient Greece and the Middle Ages show how well-read his. No doubt he would deny this. He is keen to create space for interpretation of his work that is safe from academic literary theory. While it garnered a few laughs, his joking cry of ‘help’ at the prospect of giving a lecture at Oxford can’t help but seem insincere. Indeed, his lectures at Oxford reveal him to be an avid and wide-ranging reader. The beauty and hilarity of Armitage lies in his ability to talk about the Odyssey and Poundland, Brontë and Pogba as if they were one and the same. His subtle yet germane social commentary in this new collection shows he’s still got a few aces up his sleeve.

Armitage sits on the bed in Branwell’s Studio© at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth. Photographer: Simon Warner.

Armitage at the Bronte Parsonage



Trump: the final death-knell of the Palestinian state?

Trump speaking at AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), the largest pro-Israel lobby.

The election of Donald Trump has had worldwide repercussions. Not least on the Palestinian question. Palestine, though not a state in practice, has been recognised as such at the UN with an overwhelming majority: 138 in favour, 9 against and 41 abstensions. Trump said in the primaries that solving the conflict would be a top foreign policy priority. He said it was:

‘… something I’d really like to do… As a single achievement, that would be a really great achievement… I’m going to be probably going over there pretty soon and I want to see him [Netanyahu], I want to see other people, I want to get some ideas on it.’

As with every issue Trump wades in on, there was a lot of confusion about his position on the Palestinian question. This was made worse by a blatant lack of knowledge on the topic, not knowing the difference between two of Israel’s Islamist enemies, Hezbollah and Hamas being one example. Hezbollah is a Lebanese political party and mostly-Shiite militia, Hamas is a Palestinian political party and militia.

Surprising in the primaries Trump balked at the question of recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital which is standard practice for both Democratic and Republican party candidates. Even to question Israel’s entitlement to all of Jerusalem is enough to render you an extremist to the American political establishment. This is despite the fact that no other country in the world recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, since half of Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian land that Israel has deliberately and illegally built on.  In contrast, as stated, most countries, including the the UK, recognise Palestine. Trump was skeptical of Israel’s commitment to peace. This is perfectly rational given that settlement construction is a colossal obstacle to peace, all you need to do is look at a picture of the West Bank. If you do, you will see that Israel illegally occupies vast swathes of Palestinian land and has continued to build on it, evicting and demolishing houses in the processs. This contravenes international law, effectively colonising Palestinian land. His position of cutting a more neutral line, was understandable, suprising but ultimately opportunistic.

This map from The Funambalist shows that Palestinian land has been dissected by the illegal growth of Israeli settlements which include roads and facilities Palestinians may not use.

Trump later backtracked entirely as his speech to AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) in March made clear. The semblance of neutrality vanished. AIPAC is a very strong pro-Israel lobby which has significant influence in Washington. By this time, it is worth noting, he had decided it was ‘appropriate’ to understand the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas. Trump stated: ‘We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.’ Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem would be to virtually deprive the Palestinians of their political and legal right to half of the Holy City. It further set a precedent that would make a Palestinian state nigh on impossible. In an interview with The Daily Mail in May he said that settlement growth should ‘keep going’ and ‘keep moving forward‘.Settlement growth that is likely to consign a Palestinian state to oblivion.

The prospects of a Palestinian state look all the more dim when we take a closer look at the people around Trump. His son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom Trump said could play a key role in negotiations, comes from a family that is friendly with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and who have donated tens of thousands to extremist settlements in the West Bank. His advisor on Israel, David Friedman, would be on the far-right in Israel, he believes in expanding the settlements  and annexing the West Bank entirely. Steve Bannon, Trump’s Chief of Staff and founding member of alt-right news website Breibart, demonstrates beyond all doubt that you can be both pro-Israel, pro-settlement-building and yet antisemitic. Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York tipped to be involved in the Trump administration – potentially as Secretary as State – is openly against the idea of a Palestinian state, suggesting that it would undermine US security and cause terrorism. Newt Gingrich, also tipped for a top position in the Trump administration, called Palestinians ‘terrorists’ and also doesn’t recognise the right of Palestine to exist. 

In Israel, Trump’s victory was welcomed by many Israel. One of Trump’s key backers Sheldon Adelson owns Israeli paper Israel HaYom and the positive coverage it has emitted of him has meant that Israelis are generally supportive and optimistic about a Trump administration, according to polling. His victory was also welcomed by the Israeli goverment, the most extreme far-right government in its history. Trump and Netanyahu are natural friends, maybe Trump stole his idea for a wall on the Mexico border from the ‘seperation barrier’ that Ariel Sharon built deep inside Palestinian territory back in 2003.

The ‘Seperation barrier’ at Qalqiliya where residents are seperated from their own land and travel is blocked off.  Picture credit, Nick Parry at Electronic Intifada

Israeli cabinet ministers who represent pro-settlement parties or who live on settlements themselves couldn’t resist chiming in. Education Minister Naftali Bennet was elated:

‘Trump’s victory is a tremendous opportunity for Israel to immediately announce its intention to renege on the idea of establishing Palestine in the heart of the country – a direct blow to our security and the justice of our cause.

This is the president-elect’s outlook as it appears in his platform, and that definitely should be our way. Salient, simple and clear. The era of the Palestinian state is over.’

This is not simply hot air, extreme-right-wing lawmakers in Israel moved fast to legalise Israeli outposts deep inside Palestinian territories. Emboldened by Trump’s victory, they worked ever-harder to undermine the possibilities of the Palestinian state even as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived for peace talks.Kerry hit back stating:

‘… more than 50 percent of the ministers in the current [Israeli] government have publicly stated they are opposed to a Palestinian state and that there will be no Palestinian state.’

It is worth noting that Obama and Kerry were publicly critical of the settlements, they did veto the condemnation of them at the UN Security Council. Nonetheless, Trump’s open and vocal support for moving the US embassy and settlement expansion would set a new precedent. As his spokesman said: ‘We are going to see a very different relationship between America and Israel in a positive way.’. Perhaps this really is the final death-knell of the Palestinian state.

Brexit: A Crisis of Democracy?


Figure 1 Picture credit: Reuters, Victoria Jones/Pool.

Six months on and despite Theresa’s May insistence, nobody really knows what Brexit means. Unsurprisingly, as a leaked memo shows, the government doesn’t know what Brexit means. All that we do know is that we are getting it. For most, Brexit has meant confusion. The concept of democracy has been caught up in this confusing mess. When it comes to the British constitution, Brexit has opened can of worms. Mostly remain representatives were voted into parliament during the 2015 General Election. Yet Britain (England and Wales being the only home nations with majorities) voted for Brexit in 2016. Clearly this is something to do with First Past the Post which fails to proportionately represent public opinion and reduces everything to a two horse race. But it’s more than that. The referendum highlighted how differently we’ve come to use the same word, ‘democracy’, to mean lots of different things on this issue.

Close to home, we’ve seen the rise of direct democracy as a result of the referendum. Having won the referendum, Brexiteers are convinced the people have spoken. All we need to do now is get on with it. They support the Theresa May’s attempt to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision, which, if successful, could allow the government to circumvent a parliamentary vote on activating Article 50. After continually emphasising British parliamentary sovereignty through the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, Brexiteers have come full circle. Now Parliament, chock-full of Remoaners as it is, can’t be trusted to carry through the will of the people. For them, a metropolitan liberal elite with their love of parliamentary procedure and independence of the judiciary, are just getting in the way. The Brexit tabloid press, The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Express have been keen to push this line about a liberal elite as the ‘Enemies of the People’. Nigel Farage has followed suit, his ‘betrayal’ rhetoric comes eerily close to the Nazi’s stab-in-the-back-myth about World War I. Farage is himself an emobodiment of the failure of parliamentary democracy to deal with 21st century politics. He has shown that you can radically alter British politics without even being a Member of Parliament. In short, referenda attempt to represent the people by asking for a simple answer to a complex question.

On the other side, Remainers are keen to emphasise the British tradition of parliamentary democracy. Previously more than willing to delegate power to the undemocratic European Union, paradoxically, many Remainers now find themselves defending parliamentary sovereignty. Liberal Democrats, and various figures within the Labour party, from Owen Smith to David Lammy, have emphasised that the referendum was merely advisory and was not legally binding. Parliamentarians, elected to represent the people, should choose whether to activate Article 50, the assumption being that many would opt against it. Similarly, these Remainers also reserve the right to call a second referendum on Brexit, the idea being that the referendum didn’t reflect the will of the people in the way they wanted, so let’s give it another try. This may appear undemocratic if we follow the logic of direct democracy. Thus, we see that direct democracy and representative democracy are in conflict. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering many ‘Remoaning’ MPs sitting in strong Leave constituencies, Tristram Hunt for example, are flying electoral kamikaze missions. In short, parliament is a machine designed to mediate between the conflicting, contradictory and often contrarian opinions of the general public: a complex (and often unsatisfactory) answer to a complex question.

When the referendum was first announced, many on the continent assumed that Britain would set up local forums to debate Brexit. This deliberative form of democracy stresses the importance of informed debate. The idea being to ensure citizens knew what they were talking about, had heard opposing arguments and were in touch with public opinion generally. The basic point is that democracy is a process. Its vital values, like engagement and participation, have to be cultivatedand nurtured. It’s not just, like football, a results game. As the referendum played out, it became clear how foreign this continental idea is to British political culture, where the arena of debate tends to be limited to parliamentary chambers, television studios and the columns of the national press. Without localised forums and deliberations, it is unsurprising that on a national level, the debate was polarised and involved almost no nuance. In such a climate, democratic politics therefore becomes decided by personalities. These personalities tend to be media constructions: the result of good media management and spin doctors. As a result, the referendum campaign was framed in the media as David vs. Boris, the ultimate final decider of a schoolboy rivalry, as The Guardian’s results and analysis coverage exemplifies.

Screenshot from The Guardian’s Results Coverage. Available –

We need some clarity about democracy. We need to move beyond the Brexiteer and Remoaner deadlock. We need to resolve the tension between direct and parliamentary democracy. Democracy is about people power. It is an ongoing process that doesn’t end with the result of an election or referendum. When it comes to Brexit, paradoxically, a European approach is in order. Working out what we want from Brexit will involve talking to each other, not just to our representatives in parliament, but on a local level. Yanis Varoufakis and John McDonnell were on the right lines when they toured Britain, setting up public meetings with space for dissent and discussion, arguing the case for a more radical, democratic Europe. Public engagements such as this need to become more commonplace to inform and politicize people. We need to improve the standard of debate, lift it out of the gutter, before we can get on with doing anything.