Note: the column generated some useful and enlightening comments on The National site from Mark Sorsa-Leslie, an entrepreneur who had direct experience of Finnish state support of his start-up in the 2000s. I append it for interest below the fold of this blog.
Innovation can be at the heart of our nation if we give it the help it needs
LEADING business-friendly female Scots politician caught giving public money to risk-laden private enterprises! Or: Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement this week of a £78 million, helping smooth the way to Scotland as an “innovation nation”, no less.
You may well roll your eyes back till the scary white bits show – particularly if you’ve been the subject (or more accurately object) of some “innovation” programme in your workplace. But roll them back downwards: this really matters.
Like any other developed-world economy, Scotland needs to find a way to raise itself steadily out of its own deficit hole, the sides made slippery with fiscal, demographic and many other challenges.
Making new stuff that the planet wants to buy or use is at least something we can actively get on with. It’s also based on a national resource which is in potentially infinite supply: the imagination and energy of our people.
But there are some unresolved dilemmas at the heart of innovation policy that we’re steadily working our way through in Scotland. One key debate is about where best to put public money, in order to generate the most powerfully innovative companies. The two contending approaches seem to be “upstream” and “downstream” innovation.
“Upstream” innovation is recognisable from the pages of Wired magazine, or movies such as The Social Network. Nesta, the innovation charity (to which, let me disclaim, I am contracted as a curator) describes “upstream” as the combination of “cutting-edge university research, entrepreneurial finance, and fast-growing new businesses, especially but not only in the technology sector”.
The metaphor means, I guess, that innovation comes best from incredibly fertile and powerful initial conditions. Innovation is a ground-breaking force, bursting through the crust of convention and complacency, providing a new flow of possible products and services.
You can see how this fits with the heroic-entrepreneur narrative that frames American innovators such as the electric-car pioneer Elon Musk, or the late Steve Jobs (the Apple founder about to be mythologised in a film by Danny Boyle).
Where public money comes into this model is an acute question. The economist Marianna Mazzucato – who now finds herself both on Sturgeon’s Scottish Council of Economic Advisers, and on Corbyn’s Economic Advisory Committee – has caused a stir over the past few years with a very effective conference routine.
She holds up an iPhone (which popular mythology says sprung whole and entire from the hippie capitalist brain of Mr Jobs). She then itemises all the parts of its machinery and software which relied on state-funded, blue-skies primary research – a lot of it (but not all) from the US defence budget.
Private companies don’t have the capacity to make these visionary techno-scientific commitments. Yet, as entrepreneurial enterprises, they benefit from using the fruits of this public research.
Why, asks Mazzucato, can’t the state also be an entrepreneur? Just like the venture capitalists, why can’t the state get a direct return on its investment – and particularly from these potentially mega-profitable companies who have directly benefitted from state-sponsored science?
Looking at Scotland today, you can imagine Professor Mazzucato’s ideas finding traction. This week we found Scotland has more top-rated research universities per head of population than any other country.
Read any reporting on innovation in Scotland, and you can see how much this country is abreast of the 21st century’s most transformative sci-tech. Medical neuroscience, gaming, renewable energy, genomics ... The building-blocks of an age of plenty and wonder are right at the heart of our ancient universities’ research interests.
So “upstream” innovation, as in the Silicon Valley model, would seem to fit the way things are in Scotland. But we’re missing something – indeed, quite a few things.
One is that we don’t have America’s (or even London’s) density of venture capitalists, those San Fran moguls who are willing to risk their private investments in university start-ups, but also know they have a vast internal market in the US – one that can absorb failure and amplify success.
So for small nations, the state has to step in as investor – as it does in many other successful small and innovative countries, like Finland, Estonia or Israel. Yet as readers of this paper may keenly appreciate, the Scottish state currently lacks some of the necessary powers required.
A serious, multi-billion national innovation investment bank is what nation-state independence would have allowed us to set up. The “Scottish Business Development Bank” – mentioned in the SNP’s May manifesto and building on Scottish Enterprise’s small fund – is an on-off project that doesn’t look like it will remotely hit the mark.
As for this week’s announced fund, the STUC’s Stephen Boyd – a sharp watcher of innovation policy – welcomed its arrival. But Boyd also cautioned it was “a mistake for the First Minister to present the new fund as a potentially transformative measure. It’s nowhere near the scale necessary to overcome Scotland (and the UK’s) most damaging structural problem: the failure of the financial sector to support growing, innovative businesses with patient, committed capital.”
The new fund is clearly flowing in at the other end of our watery metaphor – what’s called “downstream” innovation. Downstream innovation doesn’t wait for the next paradigm-changing new invention, but looks much more closely at what existing companies in the marketplace need from R&D.
Downstream innovation tries to redirect university departments away from what Nesta calls “curiosity-driven basic research”, towards “more applied research and technological development and deployment”. It also expands the meaning of innovation away from the techno-Eureka! moment. Downstreamers look for new ideas that work at the level of daily business practice – pricing, location, marketing, etc.
Now I understand the hands-on spirit here, a Scotland that “CanDo” (the official branding for the “innovation nation”). Whatever Scotland is, it ain’t no Cupertino, CA. So what do we actually have, and how can we make the best of it?
The Nesta research identifies one more advantage small nations have: the ability to sweep up people in a “national mission” for innovation. A story that says ideas are encouraged from society, culture and daily life, as well as from the labs of brainiacs, is to be entirely welcomed.
Hugh MacDiarmid’s old aspiration for this kind of society still inspires me: “I never set een on a lad or a lass/but I wonder gin he or she/Wi’ a word or a deed’ll suddenly dae/An impossibility”. Look out for the Unusual Suspects Festival later this month in Glasgow, which aims to foment this everyday culture of innovation.
However, just a wee hold-on-a-minute. We don’t want any unnecessary inferiorism here; the implication that radical, world-changing innovation is “no’ for the likes o’ us”. Go online and you can find an overly-cute web cartoon from Scottish Enterprise that preaches the downstream message, under the headline that “innovation isn’t rocket science”.
But we should still find a way for innovation to be rocket science as well. In recent years, Scottish scientists have zoomed in to the tiniest scrap of our biology (Ian Wilmut divining the process of cloning with Dolly the Sheep), or zoomed out to the most fundamental particle of our cosmos (Peter Higgs’s anticipation of the Higgs-Boson).
We should try to support the stream of innovation at its sparkling, elemental, daring source, as well as conduct our trade routes across its wide forths and basins. An “ImagiNation” – the free thought of scientists and artists, supported to follow their curiosity – should always sit behind an “Innovation Nation”. The makar and the maker are fellow visionaries in Scotland’s future.
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Plugging in... How the new politics are powered by a buzzing culture
A scene from a surgery in Partick: I am exchanging pleasantries with a cheery and tender medic, who is attending to my klutzy leg wound. So what’s your schedule like for the weekend, nurse?
“Oh, I’m off to the Citizens to see the Lanark play. The reviews so far have been wonderful. I’m a deep reader of all Alasdair Gray’s work.” A Yes voter? Need you ask?
The question of how we think of Scottish culture one year after the indyref, and as we stumble and search our way towards the next one, is properly messy and nuanced. At least in the Yes-zones, however, it’s hard to avoid the natural, everyday relationship between culture and politics that has evolved.
Let’s be clear though: Scottish culture doesn’t march to a political schedule. Indeed, it tends to anticipate politics, operating like a kind of advanced warning system. The writer and playwright Peter Arnott has noted that all the major “referendum” plays were already written in the 80’s and 90’s - The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil (currently touring), John Brown’s Body, Border Warfare, Caledonia Dreaming, Dissent, and Arnott's A Little Rain.
Scottish literature declared its own act of radical autonomy, at the level of writing style, in the 70’s and 80’s, with authors like Gray, Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Janice Galloway, Liz Lochhead and many others. They had an intense commitment to the particulars of the Scottish “voice” - in terms of language, vocabulary, and social experiences previously unrepresented.1
But they also consciously placed themselves in universal contexts - of feminism, socialism and anarchism, or as contributors to a post-imperialist “world literature”. From their writing desks and favourite howffs, these writers declared their independence on the planet, never mind “in Europe”.
The wave of writers that came immediately after them - Alan Warner, Alison Kennedy, Liz Smith, James Roberston, Iain Banks and Irvine Welsh (again, among many others) - adapted their predecessors’ radicalism. They took their worldly, intimate, complex Scottishness, and brought it to invigorate other mediums and markets.
The overall result of this activity, as it impacted on the indyref, was to provide a rich cultural background - by no means homogenous or propagandist - which supported a mentality of essential national self-worth amongst the citizens. (Never did the two bumptious Georges - Galloway and Robertson - make more of a fool of themselves in the indyref than when they suggested Scotland didn’t have a “distinctive culture”.)
We should never forget that the referendum vote, despite the crude binary of the question, ended up being about “full powers” versus “more powers” for a self-governing Scotland. No version of us as a “North Britain” was, or even could be, implied.
For this, we have to thank the “voicing” of Scotland by its artists, to some degree at least, as they helped solidify and articulate that identity (simply by letting their imaginations do the work).
In response to the indyref and its surging aftermath, there would seem to be some subtle shifts underway, at the highest cultural levels. After Jonathan Mills’ ill-considered proclamations of constitutional “neutrality” at the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival, the new director Fergus Linehan seems to have been much more relaxed about placing major Scots works alongside a global programme.
Take the satirical version of James Hogg’s Confessions shown, as well as the children’s production Dragon, and of course David Greig’s and Graeme Eatough’s version of Lanark. The EIF’s Hub venue also prominently features King Creosote’s heart-melting combination of music and footage, From Scotland With Love, as well as Scots multi-instrumentalist Alexi Murdoch.
If this heralds a shift towards a more reciprocal relationship between the cosmopolitan, and the Scottish-national, in cultural programming in this country - to the mutual enrichment of both approaches - it is to be quietly but clearly welcomed.
However, as Greig wisely counselled at the pre-referendum peak of August 2014, if someone asked him to write a play “about” the referendum he “wouldn’t know where to start. It’s just not how a play arrives. A play begins, for me, with an unsettled feeling, a sense of matters unresolved. It can take years and years for that grain of psychic sand to acquire enough layers of grit to become the pearl of a play.”
And for “play”, read any artwork: Greig’s predicts that in five years time, the Fringe will be louping with referendum backstories. But given that “fiction also sometimes functions as a kind of receiver of distant signals from the future”, as the playwright puts it, we should remember to read and view Scots culture with as open a mind as possible.
The posters in the streets can often be useful clues. Sitting alongside the rock and rave posters, the Glasgow theatre company Cryptic’s engagement with Indonesian culture this month, timed to the country’s 70th independence anniversary, has fascinated me.
Is this a geo-aesthetics preparing the way for the geo-politics of independence? Scots need a full understanding of a 21st century world where the centres of power are now multiple. But perhaps opening up the channels of art and culture, in all their ambiguity, personal connection and emotional openness, may be more important and enduring than any commercial or political exchange between nations?
The young design crew Lateral North also speak to this, in their various graphic mappings and connections across the North Sea and up to the Arctic. They have pulled this together in an “atlas of productivity” - where Scotland is already a pulsing power-centre of natural and cultural resources.
[See today's report in the New York Times. Also, hot off today's press, news of the CCA's season on the aftermath of the indyref, 'The Shock of Victory' - with an explicitly globalist reach (and more)]
I also await (and have long awaited) the fusion between the more traditional artforms in Scottish culture, and our thriving technoculture - of apps, computer games and graphics, new social platforms, electronic dance music.
I kicked off this column earlier this year with a protest against the closure of the Arches in Glasgow - not a great indicator of progress in this area. But as we know all too well in Scotland, something falling over spectacularly can often allow gnarly little hybrids to thrive amidst the rubble.
The future of Scotland, like many other nations’ futures, will involve grappling with strange new technologies and possibilities. It’s appropriate enough that our current cultural big-ticket is in part an SF dystopia, which ends with a giant fiery and watery storm swamping a totalitarian Glasgow.
But let’s also remember Alasdair Gray’s other hero(ine), Bella Baxter from Poor Things - revived from death by a Frankenstein-like doctor and given the brain of a child, which makes her innocent, energetic and insatiably curious.
If I could haul one genre into the beating heart of Scottish culture, it would be speculative/science fiction. More generation of startling alternatives, less tedious backstreet mur-durrs, please.
The cover of yesterday’s souvenir edition of this paper reminds us of one further role of culture and creativity, as we prepare for the next collective leap.
There was more than enough artistic agit-prop and icon-making (or to be less kind, patriotic art) in the last indyref to go around. And I’m sure it will crank up again for any second referendum on the horizon.
But in an age of mass self-expression, the aesthetes and taste-police should relax a little about the popular culture of Yes. The only energy shortage we should really worry about in a politics of independence is a human energy shortage.
Our cultural life - from the quickest cheap-shot collage on social media, to the ambivalent masterwork summoned slowly from the maker’s depths - will continue to be one of the obvious places for the indy movement to plug in. And charge up.
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1 [For a critical overview of this "voice", see Scott Hames here].
My Saturday column in The National, dated Sep 12, 2015 (online version here). All comments welcome.
Is it still OK to be shaken and stirred by Bond?
The James Bond circus is kicking into life again. Spectre, the next blockbuster in the Ian-Fleming-based franchise, hits our screens in October. Already, the trailers throb with impeccable tailoring, sportscars used as guided missiles, and purring, Euro-accented superbaddies, with Daniel Craig looking more and more like one giant knuckle wrapped in a white tuxedo.
Since I was of an age to watch them, I’ve rarely missed a Bond movie. But like most thoughtful modern male viewers, our boyish nostalgia-trips have to be increasingly diluted by critical and historical awareness. Beneath its customary wit and glamorous violence, we’d be right to be both shaken and stirred by the undercurrents in a Bond movie.
The scholars have come to a settled judgement on Fleming’s original Bond novels: they were a pop-cultural compensation for British imperial decline. At the mid-fifties height of American Cold War power, and with debacles like Suez still fresh in the mind, Bond took the lead in fighting cat-stroking international baddies. The US agents were - of course! - firmly subservient.
This was also a Britain still marked by post-war austerity. Bond’s mix of sex and snobbery - the right suits, drinks and gentleman’s club rituals, leavened with episodes of briskly-executed lust - proved irresistible to millions of readers, mired in the daily grind. (Scotland’s Mark Millar had huge fun in last year’s Kingsman, showing how manners - not breeding - maketh the rapacious, well-tailored killer…especially if he starts out as a kid from the schemes).
The Bond movie franchise seems to refresh itself for every era. 2013’s Skyfall was the biggest grossing UK film ever made, and one of the 14 that have ever grossed over £1billion worldwide. Something still must be clicking.
At least on these islands, the continuities are a little depressing: the boxes of austerity and post-imperial angst are still eminently tickable. Humdrum white-collar company men (or GQ buyers) continue to tingle at the sheer masculinity-max of it all, susceptible to the merchandise (cars, watches, perfumes, clothes, mobile phones) that may get them a step closer to Bondhood.
And the UK establishment still pathetically yearns to punch above its (feather) weight - dropping bombs to clean up its messes in the Middle East, commissioning nukes to cling onto its geopolitical status, sticking close to US foreign policy. Surely, if the UK took a more progressive and modest global role, some key sinews of credibility would snap for the Bond franchise. For many of its global viewers, the bathos of the super-Brit’s action-heroics must veer a little close to Austin Powers territory already.
There’s no doubt that, ideologically, Skyfall pushed open the cracks in the Bond facade; director Sam Mendes got some of his North London liberal-left fingers in. The scenes of soldier’s coffins draped with Union Jacks; the bombing of the top terrace of MI6 building at London’s Embankment; the hauling of M (Judi Dench) before the press to “account” for her failures.
And as is the self-referential way of things these days, Skyfall’s final battle scenes take place on Bond’s Scottish estate. This is accurate to the Ian Fleming legacy (his grandfather was a Scottish merchant and financier from Dundee). It’s also doubtless a nod to Sean Connery, whose Bond performance spent half its time raising eyebrows at the very Englishness it was supposed to exemplify.
The trailer clips and story outline for the forthcoming movie, Spectre, highlight another, more universal attraction of the Bond-world, beyond these piddling island insecurities. As any 007 fan will know, Spectre stands for “Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion”; its logo is the octopus, classic symbol of a monstrous controller with many tendrils of power.
Fleming originally dreamt up Spectre in the early 60’s because he didn’t want to date his novels in the Cold War (which he believed, at the time, might end quite soon). But of course, the “secret international conspiracy” has a long and fetid history.
For those who wish to critically analyze and challenge the dominant power structures from below, conspiracy thinking is a moment of intellectual weakness. The operations of media, finance, government and army/police seem so implacable and interlocked, so resistant to democracy or protest, that the only explanation must be a shadowy group of powerful coordinators across all sectors - the “Jewish Lobby”, Davos, the Bilderberg Group, David Icke’s lizards…or indeed, some other “spectre”.
So, as one megalomaniac mogul after yet another criminal network attempts to suborn the “free world”, Bond crashes, shoots, fights, shags, schmoozes and gadgets his way across all five continents. Usually coming face to face with these evil technocrats at the end of every movie, Bond brings them down through a warrior’s skill and cunning. Hurrah! Yeah, right.
Daniel Craig’s take on Bond resonates with the present because, it seems to me, he embodies our ambivalence about enjoying the (temporary) victory of one warrior against the system. Has a Bond body ever been so buff and objectified, but also so battered and even tortured, as his? Craig’s Bond is constantly on the verge of leaving the job, with dependencies and weaknesses roiling under the tuxedo’d swagger.
Of course, with Aston Martins hurtling through the air, and long snogs with Monica Bellucci on tap, this is called having your self-critical cake and eating it. You might think that one further nail in the Bond coffin would be the era of digital whistleblowing. Assange, Manning and Snowden have revealed the extra-judicial behaviours of those less cuff-linked than Bond.
But they’ve also shown that we live in a networked society which could enable a potentially infinite surveillance. Crunch enough big data, and you can despatch a drone to take out the Blofield equivalents. And as some monitoring of cloud activity has shown, you can even anticipate where the trouble will begin in the first place - before the “troublemakers” even properly get their act together.
007 lives perpetually in the shadows - and one of the guilty thrills of Bond over these many decades has been to watch how nakedly power can operate, beyond accountability of any kind. Yet the times have profoundly changed.
I wonder whether Mendes, or any director, will expose a 21st century Bond to the world of sunlight - that is, the active, creative, digitally-empowered citizens who power our modern social movements. The recent record on Bond and progressive politics hasn’t been, to put it mildly, encouraging. The pious environmentalist in Quantum of Solace, Craig’s second Bond movie, turns out to be - who’d have guessed? - a water-hoarding global blackmailer.
We don’t need yet another Bond movie reviving his relationship with Pussy Galore. But I’d like to see one that sits him down in a conversation with Pussy Riot.
“You are a kite, dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond”, says one of the Spectre operatives in a recent trailer. But I’d like to think that “hurricane” might as well be the demands of educated, creative, connected individuals, questioning the behaviour of traditional power-elites, in country after country. As much as it might be nehru-suited megalomaniacs, fingers hovering over their big red “destroy" buttons.
I’m guessing the actor Daniel Craig would relish the chance to publicly deconstruct the Bond persona this way. But in reality, mid-speech, I’d predict a sudden poison dart to the neck of Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, eyes disappearing into her head as the gunfight starts.
Because the franchise - whether that be an outmoded model of how a state exercises power and influence in the modern world, or the Bond movies themselves - must keep rolling.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today).
My Saturday column for The National, dated September 5th, 2015 (online edition).
How photos can change the world
FOR all adults with beloved children in their lives, seeing Alan Kurdi’s toddler body prostrate at the water’s edge is like a nightmare made real. It’s the kind of mental image that shoots you bolt upright in the middle of the night, panting with relief that you’re under a familiar quilt, and that your darlings are safely located. But there’s no relief with this picture.
And thus – even in a digital age where we presume almost any image can be manufactured – here is the power of photography. Or to be exact, press photography. Dispatched by her Turkish news agency to observe Europe-bound migrants in the area, the 29-year-old photographer Nilufer Demir came upon the bodies of Alan and his five-year-old brother Ghalib on Ali Hoca beach, around 6am this Wednesday.
“As I found them dead, all I could do was take these pictures, to be their voice,” Demir said on Thursday.
So around this image – and its partner, where the note-taking soldier lifts Alan’s body in his arms – we have an undeniable, verifiable news context. This comes at the peak of a pile of images generated by journalists who (it seems to me) are taking every chance to bear witness, reporting a surge of human suffering that no government official can remotely deny or mitigate. And out of their collective efforts, perhaps this photo is the tipping point.
There is something very particular about photography’s effect on us. In a tweet the other day, I paired Alan’s picture with that of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the naked girl running from the South Vietnamese army’s napalm attack on Trảng Bàng village in Vietnam, taken by Nick Ut in 1972. Historians have cited it as playing a crucial role in turning American public opinion against the war.
But like Alan’s picture, this is a single slice from a teeming reality. Does it tell us that the napalm bombing was, in fact, accidental? Does it indicate that Phan Phúc survived to adulthood, and now lives elegantly in Canada? Yet this is the very point of news photography: it emotionally engages us to ask questions, endless questions, about the reality it has seized and frozen before us.
We can readily document the world with moving images these days – there’s footage everywhere, received or produced, only a smartphone away. But a still photo, paradoxically, can make us more active as viewers – and more empathetic in our gaze.
There they are, fixed in the frame – two arms, two legs, two ears, two eyes (or that number to begin with, at least). Gaze on: the longer you look – and a photo allows you to linger, it doesn’t sweep you on to the next edit – the more you wonder. What might it feel like to be a fellow human, under those conditions?
The French critic Roland Barthes gave all photographs two functions. The first he called, using Latin, “studium” – the historical, social and political reality that any photograph of our human world contains. The second he called “punctum” – that detail of a photo that pierces us to the heart, for joy or for grief.
Barthes made this second function a private, subjective affair. But isn’t there a universal “punctum” that can be induced in us, as vulnerable human beings? Particularly when the Terror of War (as Nick Ut’s original photo was titled) bears upon children?
And not just war. Pablo Bartholemew’s 1984 picture of the child being buried by her father after the Bhopal gas disaster – her unearthly pallor, her blanked-out eyes emerging from the scrabbled earth – is the image that cautions every corporation to tighten up its safety rules.
Yet even in acknowledging the humanistic power of news photography, a cautionary note pops into the head: Don’t overuse, or (worse) abuse it.
During a business trip a few years ago, I visited the War Photo gallery in Dubrovnik. The exhibition on at the time (by the Agence VU photographer Cédric Gerbehaye) took the peoples of Sudan as their subject. Gerberhaye photographed the run-up to the July 2013 referendum which formally separated Sudan into North and South, after a civil war that had left an estimated two million dead.
I doubt I have ever seen more formally beautiful or striking colour photographs in my life. The desolation of the landscape was a setting for the extraordinary poise, and the sartorial flair, of the subjects – whether they be flag-wavers or amputees, water carriers or playing children.
But did I really trust what I saw? Were those human poses in the picture happened upon, or were they carefully arranged? Was that startling colour palette actually there, or was it a result of technological enhancement?
The questions of artifice and digitality sneak in everywhere – and this year, they have penetrated to the heart of the snappers’ profession. My friend Stephen McLaren, the Scots-born street-photography guru, has alerted me to the crisis that beset this year’s World Press Photo Awards.
An Italian photographer was stripped of his first prize, for a sequence of photos about the seamy street life of Charleroi, Belgium. It was discovered that one of the pictures – a couple having sex in their car – was enabled by a flash inside the vehicle, remotely triggered by the photographer ... who was himself the cousin of one of the doggers.
This was a set-up for “portraiture”, said the judges, and therefore not a news picture. But they also revealed that 20 per cent of the photos had been disqualified in the final round, mostly because they had used digital techniques to hide objects that were present in the original file.
The World Press Photo awards recently published a study titled The Integrity of the Image [PDF], where they attempted to distinguish “minor” from “excessive” digital changes.
“Excessive” means “additions or subtractions that deliberately intend to mislead the viewer”. And “minor” means being allowed to use “limited cropping, toning, dodging and burning, colour adjustment, conversion to grayscale”. Which still seems, to this inexpert observer, like a lot of visual leeway.
Some cynics have noted that this is more a crisis of those who want to win photography awards, than of photography itself – the competitive pressures of the business pushing some ambitious snappers beyond the profession’s ethical standards. And no doubt old habitués of the chemical darkroom will come forth to reveal their secrets.
But there is clearly a looming crisis for news photography here – as in, it must be said, all other areas of image culture. Think of how convincing simulated human characters have become, over the last decade of movies and computer games. How close are we to simply not knowing who is digital or who is flesh in any image, whether moving or static?
It’s all very slippery. My other picture-tweet this week was of the 2014 World Press Award overall winner, John Stanmeyer’s Signals, in which African migrants at Djibouti City hold their phones to the night sky, trying to catch a cheap signal from nearby Somalia.
Exposure tweaked? Colour adjusted? I suspect yes – but what a slice of yearning, aspiring humanity is given form and expression here. And again, true to the news photo’s nature, its “punctum” triggers a cascade of questions. What messages, from what individuals? What is their life story? What happened to them? How am I implied? What can I do?
The photographer’s finger clicks – wherever she or he is, and on whatever device – and tries to be “the voice” of who is before them. And not in spite of, but because of all the grief it causes us, we must grant integrity to the act of photographing a dead toddler’s body in the sea. Some nightmares are real – and someone has to show them to us.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today)
My Saturday column in The National, dated August 29th, 2015 (online version). All shares and comments welcomed. Note: ***response to social media criticism of the column, below fold at end of the piece.
Isn’t it time the BBC started taking Scotland seriously?
THE First Minister took the stage at the Edinburgh Television Festival on Thursday, and sought to insert a new Scots cog in the grinding wheels of the BBC’s Charter Review.
Not easy. Between Alex Salmond and the BBC’s Nick Robinson bumping chests like silverbacks, and Armando Iannucci hymning the “British soft power” of public broadcasting in his Mactaggart lecture, there’s not much media-space left for calm, detailed reform proposals from Scotland.
Yet it’s worth putting Sturgeon’s plan – essentially one more public TV station, and one more public radio station in Scotland, with an implicit argument that the BBC as a whole should move to a federal structure – in an obvious European context.
The best example is Germany’s system of federalised TV stations. Do a five-minute Wikipedia search on public broadcasters WDR (serving the state of North-Rhine Westphalia), BR (serving the state of Bavaria) and HR (serving Hesse) – then go to their programming pages.
With a population of six million, Hesse has six public radio stations (digital and analogue); the other two lander (between two to three times more populous than Scotland) have 10 each. Each has at least one public broadcast TV channel, and also contribute material to German national (and international) TV.
Whatever way you want to cut that proportionately – and even accepting Germany’s greater prosperity and taxes – there is clearly room, and precedent, for the very basic expansion of Scottish public media services proposed by the Scottish Government.
With BBC3 closing down, we have the broadcast spectrum available. Even accepting budget constraints, surely a merging of BBC Alba with a new Scottish channel is doable? *** And doesn’t it make blinding sense to separate out BBC Radio Scotland into two channels – one for music and sport, one for news, discussion and features – rather than the maddening tone-and-mood changes you hear in a day’s listening?
But here we come to the content question, so lyrically raised by two archetypal ScotLab representatives over the last 24 hours. On STV’s Scotland Tonight on Thursday, Ken Mackintosh MSP asked, with incredulity in his voice, what we would put on an all-Scottish channel – how would it be filled? Just with Scottish stuff?
And on the BBC, Iain Martin MP reminded us that, of course, Scots must have utterly unimpeded access to baking, dancing and time-travelling programmes from the BBC every Saturday night. Otherwise, naturally, a collective nervous breakdown.
We went round the houses on Martin’s point ad nauseaum during the indyref. One look at the average TV diet in Ireland, in a multi-channel and multi-platform age, should answer those anxieties. But Mackintosh’s mild derision over how a Scots TV channel could even be programmed – displaying all the sensitivity to Scottish national ambition so notable in recent ScotLab leadership – is worth a brief answer.
Only one short strapline would be required for a separate and new BBC Scotland TV channel: Taking Scotland Seriously. And that means, by implication, taking more time and going into more depth with Scottish affairs. Does anyone really believe that the 10-minute rammys and point-scoring of the items on the BBC’s Scotland 2015 (or for that matter, STV Scotland Tonight) cover more than a fraction of what each topic deserves?
It’s a paltry response to the active citizenry that has emerged over the last two plebiscites in Scotland. The citizens have responded themselves, of course. Their appetite for a more substantive discussion about Scotland’s past, present and future sustains – via both clicks and pounds – a growing range of alternative digital media (and of course, this paper).
But I don’t know any of the committed enthusiasts in the Scottish alternative sector who wouldn’t welcome a Scots channel that properly served the citizenry. Something that gave crucial areas (like health and medicine, business and the economy, sci-tech and innovation, energy and environment, education at all levels, our global impact on the world) the dedicated screen-time and journalistic/investigative brio they deserved.
Can we imagine some relationship between Scottish civic media and new Scottish public broadcasting channels? Could a percentage of its operations be more like the early years of Channel Four: a television publisher with an explicit remit for diversity of opinion, and a willingness to prototype new hybrid forms of broadcast and digital media?
But before these cutting-edge matters, there is surely no end of Scottish needs that dedicated Scottish public channels could satisfy. Simply to cover what the French would call our “arts of living” is a task at hand – not just our vibrant art, not just food, drink and recreation, but our sense of history.
That’s not just about putting Tom Devine to service as our Simon Schama, but also televisual history – deploying the Scottish archive we have, using material from both commercial and public resources, to give perspective and context to our sense of ourselves. (BBC4's relationship with its archive is a brilliant template here).
But, as we fondly plan and scheme, here comes the brick wall. The new Tory culture and media minister, John Whittingdale, made matters abundantly clear in Edinburgh the other day. He regarded a No vote in the referendum as a recommitment to British identity – and, by association, a recommitment to the BBC as the “[UK] national” broadcaster.
I enjoyed the brilliant, likeable – still evidently Glaswegian, but also pretty establishment – Armando Iannucci and his Mactaggart Television Lecture [full text here]. But as you listen, it’s easy to imagine the case for Scottish channels being drowned in the grander storm of liberal-left and conservative UK elites, battling mightily for the “soul of the Beeb”.
That’s what happens when you don’t vote to become a nation-state: all that’s left is supplication and reasoned argument to the centre, most likely resulting in a head-pat and a “terribly sorry”. And there you can bundle up BBC Scotland reform with lots of other devolutionary frustrations. But, of course, there’s more to Scottish media than pining after Pacific Quay with an SBC badge on it.
Isn’t it worth stating the obvious – that the resignation of Police Scotland’s Stephen House has come after many months of detailed, pertinacious reporting (and a few well-timed exposes of Holyrood’s back-stage process) by dogged members of Scotland’s press?
Or to remember the bravery of the young members of National Collective, successfully facing down being sued by Ian Taylor of the Vitol oil group, in response to their article raising questions about his funding of Better Together?
So we bide our time, waiting for the constitutional and structural stars to align, and produce a Scottish public broadcasting culture worthy of the name. But, meantime, let’s make sure we don’t forget to support those whose media activity “afflicts the comfortable, and comforts the afflicted”, as the American muckraker Finley Peter Dunne once put it.
“Team Scotland” does not necessarily equal “Democratic And Self-Aware Scotland”. Top-down institution-building and reform does not solve all problems in our good society. And even as we eat popcorn before the political spectacle of the long break-up of the Union, let us remember that the relationship of media to government should be, to some extent, that of dog to lamp-post. And that this is absolutely fine.
Just did a ton of updates from my various bits of Scots, UK, and blog journalism - op-ed, features, reviews, thinkpieces over the last 9 months. Here's a handy compendium post (most recent first, down to January 2015). As ever, comment and sharing most welcome.
My Saturday column in The National (online edition), August 22nd, 2015. This is a response to the debate around Liz Lochhead, Scottish national makar [poet], and her comments on the "lack of Scots" employed at the National Theatre of Scotland. All comments/shares welcome.
The Arts aren't about where you're from, but what you know
SHOULD Scots – however we choose to define that term – run Scottish cultural institutions? No, it’s not Alasdair Gray making his unhelpful “colonists and settlers” distinction again, but another Scots literary figure of high esteem – our national Makar, Liz Lochhead.
Quoted in an interview for the literary mag Gutter, Lochhead says it’s “a great pity” that “there’s a shortage of Scottish people working in the National Theatre of Scotland…I just wish there were more Scots, some more people with a Scottish theatrical culture”. That culture, Liz continues, is “gutsy, upfront, borderline” with a “rough and ready relationship with variety”.
As with the essay behind the Gray stushie of 2012-13, we would all do well to take time out to read the long, expansive text from which Lochhead’s points are lifted. Here, I want to both factually correct Liz, but also dig into the emotional and historical undergrowth of these kinds of statements. My own heart pulls in several directions here, and it may be a modest contribution just to chart those pulls.
A careful report by Phil Miller in our sister paper The Herald debunks nearly every one of Lochhead’s claims about the NTS. “They’ve got all the budget for theatre in Scotland, really.” Fact: NTS gets £4.3m direct from the Scottish Government, but the Creative Scotland theatre budget is actually £15m, distributed across many companies.
“And it’s in the hands of a very few people, few of them Scottish.” Fact: if you’re looking to tick the boxes of birth, upbringing, accent, education, and artistic record, the NTS’s associate directors, Graham McLaren, Cora Bissett and Simon Sharkey are undeniably Scottish, and powerfully talented.
It’s worth dwelling on these three, to see how their routes are as determining as their roots. Sharkey’s journey goes from Cumbernauld Theatre, to producing work in the USA, Singapore, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Ireland and Jamaica, and back to NTS, where he runs their participatory theatre projects.
Cora Bissett passed through the eye of the RSAMD in Glasgow, has notched up a barmaid’s role in Rab C. Nesbitt, and has become one of our most inventive actor-directors.
Her three most recent productions are about Janis Joplin, female genital mutilation (Rites), and the late dance-folk fusioneer Martyn Bennett.
These are Scots in the world, and Scots with the world inside them.
But it’s Graham McLaren – as equally and recognisably Scots-seasoned as these colleagues (RSAMD, Theatre Babel, Perth Rep) – who really begins to trouble Lochhead’s complaint. McLaren and a fellow associate at NTS, Neil Murray, have been “poached” by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, to serve as joint directors from 2016, succeeding Fiach MacConghail.
The Irish Times politely notes that “it’s the first time the role has been filled by theatre professionals working outside Ireland”. The Irish Independent quotes actress Rosaleen Linehan: “I think a lot of our own boys will be surprised… But at least they are Celts” (“Celts”: can you imagine that passing by the Scottish commentariat?).
And as far as I can ascertain online, that’s yer furore. As in: none. The Abbey Theatre is the key institution of the Irish cultural revival, itself a deep driver of Irish independence. WB Yeats once leapt on its stage, to calm the rioting audience during Sean O’Casey’s The Plough And The Stars. This institution has decided that key personnel of an upstart national theatre should be given license to “challenge assumptions around the words ‘national’, ‘theatre’ and ‘Ireland’”, as the new appointees’ put it in their public statement.
Is this an example of Irish “cultural cringe”? I doubt it. But is it an example of observing the success of the NTS as a “theatre without walls”, internationalising its Scottish productions with remarkable success, and wanting a piece of that action? I’d say yes.
And just to remind ourselves that the NTS’s first director was the non-Scots Vicky Featherstone, who now shapes the radical Royal Court theatre in London, and is back in Edinburgh producing a stage adaption of Alan Warner’s The Sopranos (titled Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour).
This playing at a Traverse theatre part founded by Louisiana-born Jim Haynes (alongside John Calder and Richard Demarco)…
FFROM all this, you get the point – or at least one point. Scottish culture and arts have always been wide open to the sensitive and enthusiastic outsider. There are many, many reasons for this, some of them with tortured histories.
We speak the global language, English – Scots and Gaelic having been historically marginalised, often by educational and social coercion.
Also, Scotland missed that 19th century “culture and nationalism” moment, most notably forged by the Nordic and Scandinavian countries (we were doing duty as the “workshop of the empire” at the time).
So even as the main institutions of Scotland persisted after the Union, Scots maintained a degree of looseness about “who we were and are”. This can generate a spirit of openness, a capacity for absorption of influences – but also insecurity and lack of confidence about cultural traditions.
The artistic and creative part of the Yes campaign turned this “Caledonian antisygyzy” into an advantage. It harnessed as many of the overlapping, contradictory “cultures” of Scotland as possible, to a moment of sheer democratic principle. (And it nearly worked. Next time.)
Yet one phrase of Liz Lochhead’s statements intrigues me – her sense of Scottish theatre culture as “gutsy, upfront, borderline” with a “rough and ready relationship with variety”. I think she is right – the writer/director John McGrath (Birkenhead-born, Oxford-educated) and his career with 7:84 proves that.
But I also think it points to something that often lies behind the complaint about who is most appropriate to make decisions about sustaining Scottish culture – and that is class.
Comedy is the indicator here. As much as pointy-heids like myself might wish otherwise, the Scottish working-class doesn’t flock to Kelman readings, or NTS productions.
It’s the 21 sell-out shows of Still Game at the Hydro, watched by 210,000 fans over its run in 2014. What goes viral (or amasses views) on social media isn’t some bravura soliloquy from the Traverse stage, but clips from tv shows like Limmy, Burnistoun, Chewin’ the Fat or Rab C, or comedians like Kevin Bridges or Frankie Boyle.
Yes, TV plays its part in supercharging their interest – and that’s a separate argument: we should be televising much more original Scots drama. But the question still arises: Where else can the Scots working-class hear their vocabulary and diction, and their “gutsy, upfront and borderline” concerns, properly expressed in the mainstream?
There is a flipside to this as well. If a fundamental anxiety about identity still pervades Scottish ordinary lives, then our scabrous, relentless comedy-sector plays a therapeutic role – turning angst and frustration about inequality into soul-saving laughter.
Does all this answer the opening question? Only at this angle. Whoever gets into a commissioning position in Scottish arts and media should at least appreciate the complexities and unevenness (which themselves are creative possibilities) of the culture they’re getting into.
Yes, it’s as likely a New Yorker, or a Varsovian, or a Carioca, could intuitively grasp these polarities as a native Scot – and of course, conversely, that a Scot could also grasp American, Polish or Brazilian cultural dynamics.
But in either situation, however you achieve the necessary mix –between the cosmopolitan realm of art and exchange, and the traditions and energies of the working-class of any nation – it has to be achieved. By personnel, by job specification, by affinity and relationships – I’m not sure of the exact procedure.
However, blithe ignorance of the kinds of plebeian traditions that writers like Gray and Lochhead draw on, develop and innovate with, simply wouldn’t do. Beyond that, the invitation is clear: come ‘a ye.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today)
My Saturday column in The National (online edition), August 15th, 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
Is this a smartphone which I see before me? Why Shakespeare was a pioneer of social media
BENEDICT Cumberbatch – known around my house as “Darth RADA” – is having problems with his Hamlet run in London’s West End.
One obvious problem is that reviewers gave its very early preview performances only two stars out of five. This has generated a wider discussion (led by John Tiffany, formerly of the National Theatre of Scotland) about how negative hacks should give hard-working thesps a break, as they “develop” and “emerge” their productions over a run.
I expect “Shakespeare” – whatever individuals or historical processes stand behind that term – made exactly the same mud-spattered complaints about perfidious punditry backstage at the Globe, somewhere between 1599 and 1602 (the date-range of Hamlet’s origin).
But Cumberbatch’s other complaint is much more interesting and ironic. For myself, it also explains why I am increasingly (not decreasingly) fascinated by the works of Shakespeare, and in general Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and poetry, as I get older.
In short, if you are interested in how modern times came to be, and what it feels like to transition from one epoch to another, you have to stay in touch with Shakespeare – not respectfully, but dynamically, opening out its language and themes to the present (and future).
Darth’s second problem is both ultra-modern and perennial. Last week, after a lacklustre performance, the actor came out to meet the backstage crowds of “Cumberbitches” (their self-chosen name: he doesn’t like it). He then delivered a rather contradictory message about their use of social media and smartphones during the performance.
“Please tweet, blog and hashtag the shit out of this play”, Benedict asked the swooning crowds. However, the “red lights” of recording smartphones in the auditorium, glowing as they captured the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy, had been so distracting to the actor that he had to stop and start again.
“It’s mortifying and there’s nothing less supportive … I can’t give you what I want to give you, which is a live performance that you will remember and hopefully in your minds and brains – whether it’s good, bad or indifferent – rather than on your phones. So, please don’t.” Or in subsequent performances, Cumberbatch warned, you will be evicted.
There are three issues here – historical, artistic and philosophical. Firstly, were the original conditions in which Hamlet was performed all that reverential? Not at all.
Audiences in the “penny-stinkers” ate and swilled, chatted up fanciable prospects, booed or threw objects at poor performers or infamous villains – and even answered back to soliloquies. By comparison, the potentially silent video-recording of a moby seems thoroughly respectful.
Secondly, most Shakespeare plays are artistically structured to cope with the diverse demands of their original audiences – both the nobles in the boxes and the artisans in the stalls. Hamlet himself calls the latter “groundlings” (typical of him). They are “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise” – and you can nearly hear the cat-calls answering his princely, screwed-up contempt.
But even in the playtext of Hamlet there are insertions of raw entertainment into the overall court-angst. Songs, capering clowns, gravediggers as stand-up comics, lunging swordplay, Hamlet’s own relentless piss-taking.
Of course, the original audiences could be enraptured. “Sit in a full theatre”, wrote Shakespeare’s near-contemporary John Webster, “and you will think you see so many lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, whiles the actor is the centre.” Cumberbatch may be looking for exactly that raptness – and he may get it. But he should be more robust in the face of the evident pleasure and appreciation of audiences, as Shakespeare’s work intrinsically is.
But the third issue – sparked by the use of these “funny electronic things”, in Cumberbatch’s fogeyish words – begins to capture the profound relevancy of Shakespeare to the present. Is there a character more relevant to the age of screens and selfies, avatars and updates, subversive stunts and freak performances, than Hamlet?
Hamlet is out to confirm his ghostly late father’s claim – that he (the king) was murdered by his own brother. Hamlet’s stratagem is to put on a cheesy court-play that parallels the murderous act, which the prince sets running before the suspect brother on his throne. From the side, Hamlet keenly watches his stepfather’s reactions for signs of guilt.
David Tennant’s brilliant rendition, which the BBC filmed in a modern setting in 2009 (available online), actually has Hamlet using a small super-8 handheld camera to record Claudius’s face. When he wants to make sure he is alone to soliloquise, Hamlet rips the security camera from the wall of the central chamber, crunching it underfoot. The production highlights that much of Hamlet is about the surveillance of the state, closely observing the behaviour of those who might challenge its legitimacy and power.
Surely the challenge for any contemporary producer/director of Hamlet is to respond to our hyper-aware world of mass self-communication – a world where we shape our own image, and critique the shaping of others, at will. And surely that means not chasing mobys (and their users) out of the sacred, whispering space of establishment theatre. To bastardise the original line: the digital “play [or replay] is the thing, by which we catch the conscience” of the kingly elites of our current world. Let me mention Assange, or Snowden, or Manning, or Mitt Romney, or the Falstaffian Lord Sewel…
Yet it’s not just Shakespeare’s Hamlet that easily meshes with the concerns of early 21st-century modernity. As Paul Mason recently wrote in his book PostCapitalism, you go to The Complete Works to feel what it’s like to live between the fall of one old model of economy and society and the rise of an entirely new one.
In the history plays, old feudal loyalties are being dissolved by money concerns and mercenary ambitions. In the comedies and tragedies, Mason notes, there are as many “bankers, merchants, companies, mercenary soldiers, trading cities and republics”, as there are aristocrats, castles and monarchies.
And the heroes, whether noble or not, display all the self-fashioning skills of the coming merchant era. Othello is defined by his bravery, Hamlet and Prospero (from The Tempest) by their philosophical intensity, Portia (in The Merchant of Venice) by her mastery of the law.
I have seen two recent productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company of non-Shakespearean Jacobean plays – the anonymous Arden of Faversham and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. Both of them cranked up the appetite-driven, materially obsessed, ambiently violent tendencies of the original texts to an enjoyable modern extreme – somewhere between The Only Way Is Essex and Monty Python.
Some do have a grumble about all this. “Can’t they just do it straight, for once?” But this presumes the originals were ever “straight” themselves, rather than their words buckling, mutating – and sometimes flowering – under the pressure of their age.
So grapple with Shakespeare. It’s taken me a good 30-odd years to feel fully capable of it. My early educational experiences, like many, were not good. But now, freed from the exam and peer-group angst, I’m enjoying myself.
Look also for those who simply want to be inspired by him, to make new works. Close to home, David Greig’s Dunsinane – his sequel to Macbeth – wants audiences to think as much about self-government, Gaelic and Gulf imperialisms, as it does bloody daggers and malevolent women.
And perhaps most important of all: read Shakespeare out loud, and in your own accent, unencumbered by any anxiety about “speaking it right”. One of my favourite chapters in one of my all-time favourite books, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose, is called the “People’s Bard”. Rose recounts a huge, inspiring 19th-century workers’ culture of Shakespeare appreciation.
Perhaps the more social media Darth RADA gets from his CumberFans, the more Shakespeare can be replugged back into the vital currents of everyday culture. If I were him, thinking of the thespian long-term, I wouldn’t complain about those wee red lights.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today)
My Saturday column in The National (online edition), August 8th, 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
We save our souls, and recover our humanity, by opposing the renewal of Trident
THIS is a week where we are face to face with the horrors of nuclear war. Our mediascape offers little respite from images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and rightly so. But here we still are – with ten of thousands of nuclear warheads distributed across the world. With superpowers still brandishing (and even refurbishing) their arsenals. And with our own island about to sign off on a pumped-up version of its own flaccid nuclear phallus. It would be easy to run to the hills, waving hands in despair.
As I’ve been surfing the cultural archive of the bomb this week, I have some questions about how the threat of nuclear weapons freezes our minds, as well as rouses us to activism.
Go online, and you can easily find a copy of Peter Watkins’ The War Game [bit.ly/1TbT5fL]. This is the 1965 drama-documentary about the consequences of a nuclear attack on Britain, banned by the BBC. It’s a period piece, for sure. At times, it’s a dull conveyor-belt of Cholmondley-Warners giving expert testimony.
But it’s also obvious why nervous BBC managers kept it off the screen. Just like in his as-it-happened documentary on Culloden, Watkins had a brilliant eye for bringing extreme situations down to a raw human level.
He shows the family cowering under its table, tending to an already sickening child. The post-bomb firestorms that blacken and incinerate ordinary citizens. The food riots that lead to summary executions, commanded by a bespectacled man who clearly had an alternative career in meter-reading.
What also strikes the modern viewer is how many of The War Game’s scenes – where a previously orderly suburb is blasted to pieces, its inhabitants staggering around in bewilderment and rage – have become a staple of our 24-hour news media.
It could be the consequences of drone strikes in Gaza, Syria or Iraq, or the aftermath of a storm hitting New Orleans or a Thailand village, or the dusty city-dwellers moving through the debris of 9/11 or 7/7. But we are hardly shocked any more by the sight of modern life eviscerated, turned into tatters and ruins, at a stroke.
So to return to some of the post-explosion photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horrific and heart-stopping as they are – the skinless bodies, the eyeless heads, the bodies turned to instant shadows on the pavement in the heat of the blast – is to raise a flutter of uneasy questions in the 2015 breast.
We may have been memorialising the Holocaust and the two atomic bombs for the last seven decades, but remembering hasn’t overtly humanised us. We are only a few clicks away from enough images of mass murder, dismemberment and injury to satisfy the most incurable psychopath.
Indeed, what Martin Amis calls “horrorism” is an available media tactic all round. I will never be able to watch a Daesh beheading clip – the very thought makes me reel. But I can also barely watch the Wikileaks video showing US guncopter pilots picking off civilians in the Iraqi streets.
The burned Iraqi on the road to Basra – who inspired Tony Harrison’s great poem A Cold Coming – is probably as close as contemporary imagery gets to the charred icons of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. But say we did produce a further avalanche of horror images, in an attempt to represent the hundred thousand civilian deaths generally agreed to be the consequence of the second (illegal) Iraq War.
Would that keep our outrage at a peak, ready to be deployed when the next intervention is called for? Or – a dark thought – might some part of our visual conscience now be as cauterised and nerveless as the face and limbs of any of these victims?
I think there is a deeper numbing that the era of the atom bomb has inflicted on our everyday moral responses. You’ll remember the joke that went around a few years ago, when our set-top boxes began to receive the History Channel: “They should call it the Hitler Channel, there’s so many documentaries about him on it.”
But the joke had an elemental truth buried within it. Fascism, Nazism and Hitlerism are endlessly fascinating for the historically minded, because the processes behind their rise and fall can be so clearly identified – whether in terms of economics, ideas of race and nation, the use of mass media, etc.
We nowadays see familiar economic resentments meet the enduring purisms of racial identity, and keep our warning lights on for “neo-Nazi” tendencies across Europe. Yet it at least feels as if errant hearts and minds can be grappled with, perhaps changed, with appeal and argument – daily, yearly, across an electoral cycle. Historical, in the best sense.
But the atomic bomb, the tens of thousands of warheads, and their Cold War justification of “mutually assured destruction”? All things are a product of history, of course – even startling scientific discoveries.
But nuclear weapons do seem more like the opening of Pandora’s Box, uncontrollable demons escaping, than the warrior’s arms chest. And at the back of our minds, no matter our busy plans and schemes for the present, we know we must manage what Amis calls “Einstein’s monsters” – lest they end human history altogether, in a series of planetary flashes.
I suggest this awareness has run like cold steel underneath our affairs for much of the last 70 years. We have sensed – but kept largely buried – the terminal consequences of a malevolent (or miscalculating) “finger on the trigger”. And though I couldn’t praise the generations of CNDers enough, I think this has also driven us culturally in often heedless, manic directions.
For example, we usually identify the rise of consumer hedonism in the West with a number of drivers. Say, the need to stimulate demand to cope with over-production. Or the increasing use of Freudian psychology in the Mad Men era of advertising, their pitches getting deeper under our skin.
But might not another factor be the implicit awareness, in the era of the Bomb, that the future could be blindingly cancelled at any time? And thus to focus intensely on the present – to live, love and furiously purchase and pleasure-seek like there’s no tomorrow – was an understandable response?
I’m beginning to think we have underestimated how much the hair-trigger possibility of nuclear conflagration has affected us, and in particular our civic willpower. By comparison, the environmental crisis does feel eminently historical. Our graphs of human-made global warming don’t just give us timelines into the past, but deadlines into the future too.
Take action now, on whatever green guru’s script you choose, and you might be able to mitigate the worst of the changes we know are coming.
Yet when you watch the closing sequence of Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, with that crazed cowboy bestriding his missile, hat-waving himself and our civilisation into oblivion, there is true madness in his laughter – and ours. The end of the world comes as a bad joke about our technological prowess, our ingenuity and potency. The human virus consumes itself – and good planetary riddance.
For me, this is why the anti-nuclear politics at the core of Scotland’s independence movement (and Corbyn willing, perhaps to return to the UK Labour Party) has always been so powerful – and so wonderful.
It is a demonstration that we choose not to be paralysed by the sheer scale of the nuclear system. That we can keep our minds unfrozen, our political will concentrated upon an act of nuclear non-proliferation. That we refuse to sink into the waters of cynical despair, and dare to make history.
I’m not a spiritual person, but it’s difficult to avoid the language: we save our souls, and recover our humanity, by opposing the renewal of Trident.
The Bomb will not defeat us, one way or another.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today).
This is part 2 of my extended review of Paul Mason's PostCapitalism book, first published on Bella Caledonia, 5th August, 2015 (FYI, an excellent intro to his work/interview with Paul can be found here). Part 1 is here.
Scottish Independence and “PostCapitalism”
By Pat Kane
As you’d expect from a professional reporter, working for a respected global news organisation, Paul Mason’s vision of a “PostCapitalism” – the title of his new book– doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable facts.
The penultimate chapter, which is entitled “The Case For Rational Panic”, is uncompromising and clear. Disruptive global warming, the demographic and pensions crisis, and the forces of migration responding to both of those, will deliver even more convulsive shocks and shudders to every country and region in the world – Scotland included.
As to the solution to these crisis, Mason is again refreshingly direct: a market-led approach to any of this – the default method recommended by the neo-liberal consensus for the last 30 years – is a busted flush. To a very large extent, his postcapitalist vision is an attempt to provide a comprehensive, structural solution to these deep challenges.
In this blog (a long one, but he’s full of ideas) I’m going to go through Paul’s strategies for dealing with these real-world challenges. And I hope to show how the pursuit (and realisation) of Scottish independence could be an ideal test-bed for his vision.
Yesterday I described how Mason is trying to make us all understand how transforming info-technology could be of our current socio-economic order. But it’s worth thumbnailing his basic challenge once more.
Code + Copy = Revolution
A purely digital good, once made, can be reproduced and shared forever, at no extra cost. This is a direct challenge to the classic capitalist idea that goods and services can only be accessed through money and prices.
The more that other goods are shaped by digital processes – designs for manufacture of transport or houses, bio-formulas for drugs or food, machines that are ever more adaptive and even self-directing – the more the price-system for those goods begins to dissolve.
The baroque, often ludicrous structures of copyright and control which snake through our info-lives – suppressing a genuine potential for abundant services and products – could be halted and reversed. That is, if the “left” exerted enough “willpower, confidence and design” (in Mason’s words) to create “projects” that proposed alternatives.
Who does Mason think could take these projects (of which more later) forward? In my previous blog, I charted Paul’s attempt to cast the “universal educated person”, or “networked individualist”, as part of a longer history of the culture of the working-class. A culture which always surpassed, in its dreams and aspirations, any degrading or exploitative relation it had with the managers and bosses of capitalism.
Surely it’s easy for Yessers to understand exactly what Mason is referring to, if they recall the everyday community flourishing unleashed by the Yes campaign during the indyref.
And in Scotland, that flourishing was amplified by the contagious, irrepressible use of network technologies – to organise and archive meetings, to distribute alternative news and counter-factual graphics, to raise cash for activist projects at cost price.
So Indy supporters should know, intuitively, what Mason means by the communicational and liberating power of digital computers and networks.
Networked activists used and built the web in order to prototype their future, “as if” it was already happening (or even “as if you were in the early days of a better nation”). But they aren’t the only agents of change, for Mason, that could bring about a post-capitalism.
Mason spends a lot of his book berating old-style lefties for their lazy, managerialist assumptions – that all you do is take control of the state, by elections or other means, and the socialist dream is achievable.
So it’s comforting to realise that, at the end, Paul does see the state – one with confidence in its regulatory and policy powers – as an essential player in the “transition phase” to post-capitalism. For Yessers, who directed their networked activism to the achievement of a Scottish nation-state, this part of Mason’s vision should be of great interest.
How could the policy programme of a future Scottish Parliament respond to the already “post-capitalist” dimensions of the indy movement? Using whatever powers it can muster, short of and including full nation-statehood?
Helpfully, Mason closes his book with prescriptions – which he will be happy to see “torn apart and revised by the wisdom of angry crowds” – under the title of “Project Zero”. This refers to three overall objectives:
Mason then outlines eight tasks in a project plan that might get us to this postcapitalist state.
A “Project Zero” for Scotland
The most pertinent thing to do, for Scottish readers, may be to briefly introduce each one, and then see where that fits into the Scottish policy landscape, whether historic, actual, prospective or hoped-for.
“Model first, act later.” This is an intriguing suggestion from Mason, based on his investigation into how massively powerful computers can now model and simulate designs for reality.
His signature example is the aircraft jet engine, which in the old days was tested a couple of hundred times in real life, but has been tested a hundred million times by a computer simulation, before being actually constructed.
Simulations of climate change, or epidemics, or populations, or traffic flows take in thousands of different inputs, algorithmically calculated. But, Mason complains, when we model our economies, our inputs are pitiful: the European Central Bank uses only households, firms and the central bank.
Why can’t we establish “a global institute or network for simulating the long-term transition beyond capitalism” – starting with “attempting to construct an accurate simulation of economies as they exist today”?
All the “big data” that surrounds us could feed into such a simulation, and allow us to eventually test out our post-capitalist notions to see what ones worked, or didn’t, or needed tweaking.
There’s a few obvious resonances with Scottish policy here. We already have a “Scotland Performs” website, which has scores of “national performance indicators” with arrows pointing up, down or both ways – yet it’s hardly the Wikipedia-like interactive simulation that I think Mason anticipates.
We also have something of a legitimation-crisis when it comes to statistics that measure the performance of the Scottish economy, with claim and counter-claim coming from ScotGov, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Office of Budget Responsibility, and various other bodies.
Could a partnership of Scottish universities, government and the business sector take up Mason’s suggestion – not just to use petaflop computers to model in real-time the Scottish economy, but to begin this process with global partners, and with a view to exporting and benchmarking this process? Why not do it here – the land of Clerk-Maxwell, Adam Smith and Red Clydeside?
“The Wiki-State.” If a state is like Wikipedia, it doesn’t provide command-and-control from on high – but it does build a structure that enables much free and creative activity, often of great usefuless and relevance, and produced through diligent and respectful collaboration.
What stiffens Mason’s spine is that such a state should be proactive in extending the zone of postcapitalist collaboration and free services. Which means both “switching off the neoliberal privatisation machine” (ie, don’t cave in to the privatisation of public services (“the EU made me do it”)), and actively using the power of procurement to “favour sustainable, collaborative and socially just outcome”.
Do existing Scottish Governments accredit themselves well here? Not very – though there are enough flurries of protest (recently around the idea that the public service of CalMac Ferries could be passed over to Serco) to show that the Scottish public sphere understands how its state should act to benefit the commonweal.
But in recent legislation around community empowerment, and land reform, there is at least obesiance paid to the principle of pushing back against corporate imperatives in the name of the popular will.
However, it’s not quite “clearing a space in the capitalist jungle”, in Mason’s words, to allow the “fragile new plants… of peer-to-peer projects, collaborative business models and non-profit activities” to grow. A left-green electoral bloc in the May 2016 Holyrood elections seems like more and more a necessary component of a radical “independence” majority – at least to keep the possibilities open for something more than the SNP’s boilerplate “fairness-and-prosperity” approach.
And in terms of what’s coming, even a safety-first Scottish Parliament could be knocked off-course. Mason also ventures into how a “wiki-state” might stave off a deeper financial collapse, due to accumulating debts not just from botched austerity programmes, but also the looming pension payments crisis. At the very least, his projections should focus Yessers’ minds on what form of Scottish national economic sovereignty could navigate through what looks like some very stormy waters to come – no matter what we do.
"Expand collaborative work.” Again, here Mason takes a strong-minded view of the state’s responsibility to exercise “law and regulation”, in order to limit traditional enterprises’ ability to “contribute to social injustice”. These include start-ups incentivized by tax law to pay low-wages from the get-go, or large cheap-labour corporations that benefited from the space “ruthlessly carved out for them since the 90s” by the state.
What a state should also promote are businesses which produce free stuff in a collaborative way: he wants someone to set up an “Office of the Non-Market Economy” to nurture them all.
As I know from my board membership of the think-and-do-tank Common Weal, Scotland already has a deep historical tradition of co-ops, collectives, mutuals and credit unions. It’s now being added to by cafes and bars, creative spaces, and most vibrantly news-and-views media platforms.
The latter – this blog, Wings, CommonSpace, Newsnet, The Ferret, The National and several others – are probably the best example of the kind of spontaneous networked organisations that can be generated from the combination of info-tech and social movement.
Though interestingly, online subscription and net-based crowdfunding – the latter of which doesn’t even merit a mention in Mason’s book – has been a vital, and even reliable way of ensuring sustainability (sometimes even sanity) for those who run these platforms. Yet these are literally gifts to valued figures, granted money by the community in a similar way to the elite employees of high-performance info-capitalist enterprise – who as Mason says, “are basically paid to exist” (or more likely, for the cybernats, post more than a few times a day).
But the idea of an “Office of the Non-Market Economy” sounds like a slam-dunk offer, if the Scottish Government was vaguely interested in Mason’s analysis.
“Suppress or socialise monopolies.” Faced with the tendency to abundance and freedom of informational and information-shaped goods, info-capitalism’s primary response is to try and establish a monopoly (the posterboys being Google and Apple). Mason is bracingly militant about the state’s response: break ‘em up. And if you can’t break ‘em up, take them into public ownership.
Paul is also very clear about the impact of public provision of items like water, energy, housing, transport, healthcare, telecom infrastructure and education. If they were delivered at close to cost price, the price of basic necessities would cheapen, labour time could be reduced, and the free production zone increase. It would be a “strategic act of redistribution, vastly more effective than raising real wages”.
In Scotland – and I would love to know how this phrase made it into the First Ministerial vocabulary – we actually have a policy beachhead for all this. The concept of the “social wage” has been part of SNP policy for several years now.
It is usually represented by the eight year freeze in council tax; free prescriptions; elderly personal care; free school meals; a commitment to the Living Wage for all public sector workers under Scottish Government pay policy; the roll out of 600 hours of free childcare for all 3, 4 and vulnerable two year olds; the Scots students saving up to £9,000 per year with fee-free tuition.
As Salmond wrote in the Guardian in 2012: “We have made a conscious decision to provide certain core universal services, rights and benefits, some of which are no longer prioritised by political leaders elsewhere in the UK… We do this because we believe such services benefit the common weal. They provide a sense of security, wellbeing and equity within communities. Such a sense of security is vital to a sense of confidence – and as we have seen over the last three years, confidence is essential to economic growth.”
The last line slides into orthodoxy. But the overall principle is clear – however tough it may prove to use Scottish sovereign power to defend its application (from EU regulators and the like). There is an overall Scots consensus for using public services to counter the atomizing and fear-inducing impact of neoliberal marketisation on everyday communities.
What Mason can add to this defensive argument is a positive opportunity. A “social wage” (along with a citizen’s basic income – see below) can support a steady growth of non-market mutual provision, driven by the sharing, copying and modelling digital technologies he champions.
Even short of full independence, wouldn’t it be possible for a Scottish government to open up and support these possibilities? Does this not go with the very grain of the “commonweal” so often invoked by ScotGov ministers?
“Let market forces disappear.” This is a slightly misleading header, as Mason concedes that “networked individuals” have a strong consumer identity, and that markets – as a way that producers and makers can respond to complex desires – should still have their place. But if the private sector seeks profit, it must do so from “entrepreneurship, rather than rent”.
What that means for information goods is that you don’t just keep extending copyright and controlled-usage for ever – which provides you with rent, forever – but you deliberately make those copyrights “taper away quickly”, after the short-term gains from innovation (new clothing style, hit record) fade away. The way to make more money is to then come up with something new again!
Thus a “commons” of intellectual property grows and grows, providing a necessary resource for non-profit/free labours and enterprises. This would be further enriched by ensuring that state-funded research results, generated by from universities and other institutions, were “free at the point of use”.
Again, in the context of the Yes campaign, Scots have recently had the experience of playing fast and loose with copyright – of people getting themselves together around projects and worrying (or forgetting) about who “owns” it afterwards.
I’ve often thought there could be a much bigger infrastructural responsibility invested in something like “Creative Scotland”. Because if creativity and innovation is “becoming exponential”, as Mason phrases it, shouldn’t the macro-institutions which sustain that be of an appropriate scale?
And again, what is to stop a Scottish Government experimenting with support systems for postcapitalist artists, creatives and enterpreneurs – involving not just open cultural rights, but different forms of communal living, different kinds of community contribution?
Interestingly (for so-called “statist” independistas like myself) Mason isn’t afraid to bat for the state interest when he perceives it to be urgent. Around energy, he’s forceful about the need to take the grid and its carbon-based suppliers into public ownership. (As they can’t burn their reserves without burning the planet, he quips, “these corporations are toast anyway”).
So far, each of Mason’s project goals has consequences for how Yessers think of Scottish sovereign state power – and this is just one of the more acute. If a future Scottish government were to conduct these nationalisations – and it’s certainly not on the SNP-majority ticket at the moment – could this happen within the framework of EU competition law, in its current, neo-liberally punitive form?
The more that Mason specifies the state policies that will help the transition to a postcapitalist society, the more militant it looks like the next Scottish assertion of sovereign independence will need to be, to get anywhere near this state of affairs. The SNP’s indy-lite policy prospectus for 2014 (“independence in the UK”, as Iain Macwhirter once waspishly called it) seems like a proper dead-end, as a model for the next heave (whenever it happens).
“Socialise the finance system.” This is a complex section, and it’s perhaps easier to begin by quoting Paul’s ambition:
“In the short-term, the intention is not to reduce complexity – as the money fundamentalists want – nor simply to stabilize banking, but to promote the most complex form of capitalist finance compatible with progressing the economy towards high automation, low work, and abundant cheap or free goods and services”.
His range of measures to ensure this are pretty familiar to those who have engaged deeply with the Scottish policy debate over the last ten years. Firstly, a nationalised central bank, targeted at sustainability (see notions like a Green or a People’s Quantitative Easing, flagged up in the Corbyn campaign in the last weeks).
Secondly, a much more regionalised and regulated banking sector, with credit unions, peer-to-peer lenders and the like given greater status. And thirdly, a re-regulation of complex global financial activities, emphasizing investment for production, and hunting down tax havens.
But let me keep coming back to the Scottish indy context. To take these measures forward would require a general popular confidence in the ability of one’s state to conduct sovereign reforms of its macro-financial systems.
We just didn’t have enough of that on September 18th, due in part to the terrifying psychological bombardments of the media-establishment complex (though it was touch and go for them). And the spectacle of the Greek Syriza government being pummelled this way and that by their Euro “partners” might have boosted the resolve of the already-engaged, but perhaps has worried even more those older, pensioned, tremulous Nos.
Yet again, Mason’s challenge to any potential postcapitalist state, and its confidence in its agency and sovereignty, is considerable. Are we up to it, and up for it?
“Pay everyone a basic income.” This relates to a pillar of Mason’s overall historic argument. The organised working classes and their militant demands for better terms and conditions, as a wave of capitalist expansion crests, actually helps the whole system thrive in the long run.
The new social measures they force (from public housing to universal education) improve the capabilities of the worker; and the expensiveness of the labour compel companies to develop more efficient and innovative production technologies.
But neo-liberalism smashed the power of labour over the last 30 years – which meant that, even as the startling powers of info-tech have bedded in, stagnation has been the result. This is because neo-liberalism’s control freakery is essentially happy with the majority of its populations working in low-skill, low-wage,“bullshit” jobs. A basic income is an attempt to kickstart the “workers” end of systemic development again – by removing the opportunity to make a business from bullshit jobs.
Basic income is also a future-oriented response to the prospect of postcapitalist enterprise being much more about non-market behaviours and relations. We will have to start valuing this kind of activity, because the necessary hours of labour in society are due to start rapidly declining, due to automation – which threatens to remove 40% of existing jobs by 2040.
In Mason’s vision, basic income (his levels are £6000 for the BI, with a minimum wage at £18,000) provides a basis on which the techno-mutual society can flourish. It gives people a high economic floor, from which they can strike a new mix – between their jobs (which are now tending towards high-wage, high-skill occupations, employers pushed their by the basic income), and their lives (and loves).
The Scottish pathway towards this is, actually, pretty clear. The late feminist economist Ailsa McKay is perhaps best known in the country for persuading Alex Salmond that a massive investment in childcare would serve a number of positive outcomes – both supporting women’s autonomy, and paying for itself by bringing more women into the labour market.
But it’s not as well known that Ailsa’s next policy horizon was the introduction of a “citizen’s basic income” (CBI) in Scotland (see her Royal Society of Edinburgh policy paper). She’s worth quoting in full:
“In contrast to current social security measures, a CBI does not explicitly link income provision with work. In this sense it can be regarded as an emancipatory measure in that it serves to free individuals from the economic necessity of toil and provides the basis to support a range of welfare enhancing activity undertaken outwith the confines of market based exchanges. A CBI is not merely an alternative to existing social security provision but rather a philosophy aimed at enhancing individual freedom and promoting social justice. In essence providing the basis for securing ‘real freedom for all’.”
Certainly, welfare powers are coming piecemeal to Scotland under devolution, and we can’t get the integrating powers required short of independence. But the Utrecht experiment in basic income seems to be happening at the level of a city or municipality. Are there “Yes” towns, with the required cohesion, patience and municipal vision, that would be willing to take on an experiment – Coatbridge? Dundee? Inverness?
“The network unleashed.” You gotta love Paul Mason for paragraphs like this:
“There is no reason other than exploitation why world-class techniques of automation cannot be applied, for example, to the labour of the sandwich factory or the meat-packing plant. In fact, it is only the availability of cheap, unorganised labour, supported by in-work benefits, that permits these business models to exist. In many industries old disciplines of work – time, obedience, attendance, hierarchy – are enforced only because neoliberalism is suppressing innovation. But they are technologically unnecessary”.
Mason performs a crucial service in the PostCapitalism book – in that he continually smacks you upside your head, and jolts you from the consensus view about how our modern, producing-and-consuming lives should be.
But as I wrote in my first piece on the book in The National a few weeks ago, I think Paul underestimates just how brilliantly seductive those info-capitalists are. The Zuckerberg’s, the Ive’s and Jobs’s, Larry and Sergey and Jeff Bezos and all devote billions designing ways to corral us back into a passive, orderly space with our daily techno-structures.
How we keep mentally and imaginatively escaping from those comfort zones into more dynamic, active visions of our coming society – think the closing credits of Wall-E, where the blobby humans work with their robots to rebuild their world – is a question perhaps for artists most of all. (Pause to mourn the passing of National Collective, now probably more needed than ever).
Luckily, Scotland is not short of what Disney called “imagineering” or “imagineers”. From conceptual artists to science-fiction writers, from games-makers to hard-core researchers, from SF blockbuster scripters to open-source coder communities, we have an embarassment of future-oriented riches.
I facilitated an encouraging conference on Scottish innovation a month ago in Edinburgh – and by far the most exciting contribution came from Glasgow School of Art’s head of design, Irene McAra-McWilliams.
Irene actually suggested a new verb to us all – “to studio”. Meaning that the vibrancy of creative practitioners in Scotland was suggesting new organisational forms that we could begin to scale up across Scotland. A studio (as opposed to a a lab) is about a collective display of work, a space of explicit mutual inspiration and soft prototyping.
From everything that Paul has suggested in his extraordinary, mobilising book, what would a “postcapitalist studio” scene look like in Scotland? Who can build them? From what elements? What would they do?
And BTW, dear Yesser: Do you remember what it felt like, to have the energy to ask all these questions, and find the people around you who might help you answer them – or ask better ones?
You do? OK. So there’s one idea – “modular, self-managed, granular”, as Paul might approvingly say – for the Scottish future. Get his book, read carefully (and with pleasure), and come with a fistful of your own.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer, and an innovation editor for Bella Caledonia (www.patkane.today)
This is part 1 of an extended review of PostCapitalism, the magisterial new book from the writer and economics editor of Channel Four, Paul Mason, published in Bella Caledonia, 4th August, 2015. Part 2 of the review focusses on the book's direct relevance to the Scottish political agenda, devolved and independent. Here, I give a general overview and critique of the book. All comments/shares welcome.
Adventures in PostCapitalism
By Pat Kane
I can’t give a higher accolade to a book than to say it deserves reading three or four times – and that after that you should have it on hand for keyword reference, via whatever devices you possess.
Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism (buy here) connects our contemporary challenges – technological, socio-economic and planetary – to a very persuasive history, whose waves of change are explained by a powerful collection of theories. I expect that we’ll be coming back to drink from this river again and again on the Scottish indy-left.
Yet the reader would do well to pay close attention to the subtlety of Paul’s arguments about what might come after capitalism. He says explicitly that he is a “revolutionary reformist”, and delights that this self-description annoys both the boss-class and the Occupy protestor alike.
One of his most useful moves is to urge radical leftists to abandon the idea that capitalism can only be “overthrown” from the “outside” with an “entirely new plan” – and that instead, a postcapitalism can be “incubated” from within it. There’s a number of reasons Mason gives for this. One of which is that Marx and Engels, for all their analytic power, got the collective mentality and experience of the worker (as a “proletariat”) under capitalism quite wrong.
Marx pronounced that the proles were entirely alienated in their consciousness, brutalised cogs in the factory system – and thus would be desperate for enlightened vanguards to lead them to liberation.
However, over successive waves of capitalist development, the working-class found a way to “live alongside capitalism”, as Mason puts it, by generating their own positive culture of liberation. They didn’t just grimly press for better working conditions (which, by restoring demand to economies and improving workers’ capabilities, enabled capitalism to renew itself).
They also created clubs, recreations, libraries, self-educations, entertainments – often themselves infused with utopian, humanistic visions, reaching way beyond the achievement of decent working conditions. (I once bought a “Socialist Sunday School Song Book” from a shop in Glasgow’s Trongate: all those sentiments are in there, hymn by hymn).
The point Mason wants to make is that, historically, there has always been a zone of what you could call “complex liberty” in working-class lives. People have always had intense, lively reasons for wanting to push back the frontiers (and the hours) of societally-required labour, one way or another.
This was desired in order that rich and meaningful choices could be freely and consciously made – about the direction of one’s life, or the relations with one’s relatives, friends and neighbours, or one’s attitude towards knowledge or skill.
In short, left politics should not always be just about defending the right to “labour”, “jobs”, “employment”. It should also be about creating conditions where the maximum possible number of citizens can exert the greatest possible degree of autonomy and self-determination.
In short, left politics should not always be just about defending the right to “labour”, “jobs”, “employment”. It should also be about creating conditions where the maximum possible number of citizens can exert the greatest possible degree of autonomy and self-determination.
In pushing for as much free time as possible, as a benefit from increased productivity through technology, a modern left honours some of the best traditions of working-class life. The Multitude itself has always contained multitudes.
So when Paul comes to tell us that digitalisation, enabled by computers and communication networks, opens up a realm of free products and services that threaten the very property rights and social arrangements of capitalism itself, he wants to be seen as drenched in workers’ history, not some Wired-magazine neophile. (Though to be fair, the “New Digital Socialism” essay that founding Wired editor Kevin Kelly wrote in 2009 is fascinating to compare with Mason’s work).
Friendly and mutual societies were the precursors of the achievements of the welfare state, public housing and mass education – all those wrested from the furious upheavals of capitalist development by the organised working-class.
In the same manner, suggests Mason, contemporary radicals and progressives should be even more ambitious for what current practices like open source software, digital sharing practices and computer simulations could become, at the level of an entire society. What would be the postcapitalist equivalents of those great collective achievements?
My sense is that Mason wants these ambitions to be guided by this irrepressible historical desire – that is, to seek the resources to shape your life according to your sensibilities, in cooperation with others who have a similar openness and ambition.
Paul doesn’t go exactly where I went in The Play Ethic in 2004, in trying to locate the source of this desire. I found it in the biological and evolved necessity of play and creativity to the development of the human animal.
The lives of most humans in history have been conducted under conditions of economic scarcity. Digitality and networks brought the spirit and practice of abundance into the socio-economic mainstream. For me, the digital revolution has felt like the platform that the creative principle in human beings has been long awaiting, over many millennia.
Ever since the first artwork on a cave wall, or the first consciously-formed social group, adult humans – themselves always forged through early childhood play – have sought to express their creative urges. Human imagination irrepressibly bubbles up through the cracks of brute survival. The current tumult of digital culture only hints at the kind of world we could forge if those exigencies of survival were radically reduced.
I know it’s fun to tear strips off the “hipsters” and the “creatives” – and it’s right to do so when they are just expressing their accumulated cultural capital, as a class privilege. But what is so valuable about Mason’s PostCapitalism is that he makes us realise how propitious the general conditions are, in which we can make very significant redefinitions of the priorities of our lives.
Paul asks us to build the confidence that we can answer our complex needs with free, open and information-driven systems and practices – and to experiment like crazy in doing so. If we can do this, we might well be able to displace “work” from the centre of our societies, and replace it with “meaning” or “culture” or “purpose” or “creativity” or “care”. Or any permutation of those.
Of course, who exactly the “we” is in those last few paragraphs – how big, how self-conscious, how clearly motivated to progress change – is the crucial question. In my Guardian Live discussion with Paul and others a fortnight ago, and in my recent column in The National, I flagged up a few potential problems.
Paul’s chosen agent of change is the “universal educated person” that’s coming to consciousness throughout the capitalist world system. These types are not just to be found in the developed world, but are also reacting to illiberalisms in China, the Middle-East, South America, the major African cities. All of them are empowered to dream bigger, and build or promote alternatives, by means of their networked devices.
Back in 2004, using an admittedly awkward neologism, I called them the “soulitariat” (the proletariat sold their physical power to the authorities; the soulitariat sell their mental and emotional power – but can never sell it entirely).
Back then, like Paul, I too hoped then that these digitally-empowered “players” would become a majority class. And not just (to use the old Marxist language) a class “in” themselves, but a class “for” themselves – acutely aware of their own interests and agenda. They’ve also been called “hackers”, and then “makers” and “creatives”, over these last ten or fifteen years.
But however many times we’ve described them, I’m not sure they’ve fully turned up yet – ready and willing to build the new society that their communication-driven lifestyles imply.
There may be deeper reasons why they haven’t arrived. Paul and I both have quite a faith in the intrinsic, evolutionarily-rooted capacity for human creativity. He talks of an “adaptive left”, ready to bring about “new kinds of human beings”, whose eventual character traits cannot be predicted. “How will humans have to change in order for postcapitalism to emerge?”
But I wonder how strong the counter-tendency is: a desire for less change, for the conservation of things, for stability and security first?
…I wonder how strong the counter-tendency is: a desire for less change, for the conservation of things, for stability and security first?
We’ve no shortage of science-fiction in popular culture, imagining “new kinds of human beings” every week. The problem is, when it does, it usually reveals deep and enduring fears, rather than thrilling new possibilities.
I’m thinking about Channel Four’s Humans, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. The first is about humanoid robots, the second about bio-modification, both becoming an accepted fact of our coming lives. But both are predominantly cautionary – telling stories to prevent a future happening, rather than showing a pathway to it.
“What [we postcapitalists] are trying to build”, says Mason, “should be even more complex, more autonomous and more unstable” than the flexible organism (or “adaptive system”) that is capitalism. A capitalism whose ability to shift and mutate to changing conditions proved ultimately superior to the most meticulous Soviet planning.
But are there limits to how much “complexity, autonomy and instability” humans can cope with? For example, isn’t one of the biggest forces in the contemporary world the kickback against the kind of incessant, transformative modernity that Paul celebrates? Whether that be militant religious identities, or hard-core environmental resistance, or more locally the four million odd votes on this island for UKIP, asking to “stop the world and get off”?
Mason has a tin ear for this philosophically conservative tendency (with a small “c”). At one point he writes about the travails of labour organisers in the global South, and the “social and ideological cobwebs” in the minds of locals that “they fail to overcome”. Those cobwebs Mason defines as “ethnic rivalries, the village network, religious fundamentalism, organised crime”.
For Paul to call these “cobwebs”, presumably to be swept away by a confident ultramodern hand, isn’t reckoning seriously with their shaping power. Take a young African-Muslim man’s militant ethno-religious identity, fuelled by the meretricious quality (not to mention the lethal drone strikes) of Western civilisation. Would his head and heart be so easily “sublated” by the influence of his compatriots becoming “universal educated individuals” on their ever smarter phones?
Mason and I hugely admire the Catalan social thinker Manuel Castells, only glancingly referenced in this book. But I wonder whether a deeper engagement with his work might have helped here. In his trilogy on network society, Castells talked about the tension between “the Net” and “the Self” (I commissioned Castells on this topic for my E2 page in the Herald in 1997, and recently referenced this in an essay on Alasdair Gray’s “settlers and colonists” controversy in 2012).
On one side, Castells posits the fluid experience of network society – the world at your digital fingertips, and the “multiple identities” you need to function properly in it. And on the other side, Castells concedes an equally strong impulse to have your feet planted somewhere, to lay down a collective anchor of identity in the global storm.
So yes yes yes, Paul, let’s push forward new practices that both demand and forge “new humans”. But shouldn’t those interested in a good society also be trying to find a healthy balance between cosmopolitan complexity and traditional stability – or even more elemental, between risk and security?
One way to balance these poles is through a civic nationalism or constitutional patriotism – a vibrant national polity seeking to make its progressive, constructive mark on the affairs of the planet. This was summed up classically by the SNP pioneer Winnie Ewing’s old 60s phrase, “stop the world, we want to get on”.
Mason wrote a Guardian column recently which resisted mightily the idea of any kind of English identity, even while accepting that constitutional reform is coming to England. He wants Englishness itself to be like its language – a sprawling force for plurality, hybridity and worldliness. Something that could only be crudified by association with a flag or nation.
But couldn’t that be expressed as a unity-in-diversity, an e pluribus unum, a national home whose framing of diversity and difference you could be proud of? That “green and pleasant land” implied by the recent invocations of William Blake’s Jersusalem – whether they be Jez Butterworth’s, or Danny Boyle’s?
“Don’t try to burden me with yet another layer of bogus identity politics”, says Paul in the Guardian article – and it’s OK, Paul, I won’t! But the national dimension brings me to the question of how Paul’s PostCapitalism might inform the policy agenda of pro-independence parties and movements in Scotland – which I’ll explore in my next Bella blog.
Pat Kane is a writer and musician, and one of Bella Caledonia’s innovation editors (www.patkane.info).
My Saturday column in The National (online edition), July 25th, 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
What next for capitalism as Apple keep the must-have gadgets coming?
OUR gadget-girl friend came round the other night, to officially show off her new iWatch. The family gathered round, oohing and ahhing, tapping and flicking. Dress us in pinafores and waistcoats, and you’d think it was the first crystal radio set in the tenement.
But desirable? Like the geek said: Hell, yes! Apple have this way of insinuating themselves into the space between your intentions and your actions. They do it by making their devices not just connected and information-rich, but as well-fashioned as the favourite tool in a tradesman’s kit-box.
When you need to know, or arrange, or buy, or say something, so usable is an Apple appliance that it’s your first port of call. Never mind the person standing right next to you.
Surprisingly though, as I commandeered my friend’s wrist, I felt a buried but tangible aversion. What – more portable stuff to lose or break? More messages and notifications? Enough, enough… The anxiety became clearer the moment I strapped it on. It began to immediately measure my heartbeat, then send me physical nudges from our pal’s iWatch-wearing pals.
OK: it’s now on my skin (not forgettable in a pocket or bag). It’s unexpectedly touching me back. Capturing my body data. Sending it to a medical provider you know about – or a government agency you don’t.
I took it off, slightly relieved. But will I eventually succumb, as I have done with all the other “i”s – Mac, Pod, Phone, Pad? Christmas will tell.
I have very hard-core tech mates whose contempt for my Apple appetite is limitless. “Fisher-Price toys for self-infantilised adults”, they mutter. “Program or be programmed. Code, or be encoded thyself”. They then slam down their bitter espressos and leave for darker business, the Wolfie Smiths of the post-Snowden era.
But, as critique, that’s just not good enough. Apple are now so successful that when they announce record-breaking quarterly profits, as they did this week, they still lose $50 billion from their stock-market valuation – because they haven’t provided quite enough detail on their iWatch sales.
By any measure, it’s a rosy picture. For example, they’ve doubled their iPhone sales in South Korea, the very home of Samsung. Their CEO, Tim Cook, expects the rising Chinese middle-class to graduate to their products, as an aspirational marker.
There are well-evidenced rumours – given the amount of automotive talent they’re signing up – that Apple’s next big device will be an iCar, in tune with Silicon Valley’s current fever for self-driving automobiles. (What a patsy I’ll be for that, as a bohemian dumpling who’s never learned to drive. To the next salon, Robo-Jeeves…)
Other than the intermittent flurry of stories about the workforce at their Foxconn factory in China, chucking themselves off tall heights as the pace and conditions of manufacture intensify, it's hard to see how Apple’s round-cornered, softly glowing juggernaut could be in any way halted or even dented (except by its avid competitors).
I was harbouring these not-very-radical thoughts as I sat on a panel a few days ago with Paul Mason, Channel 4’s brilliant and energetic economics editor, whose great synthesising tome on what he calls "postcapitalism” is just about to come out.
I thought I had a near-spiritual faith in the powers of the open internet to shake up everything from manufacturing to democracy. But in PostCapitalism Mason goes one better, deploying hard data and eclectic theory to suggest that an end to capitalism (as we know it) is practical and do-able. And the evidence comes from the ways we already share, copy and collaborate through computers and networks.
I’ll explore Mason’s book more thoroughly – and how it can inform Scottish progress – in the Bella Caledonia blog this coming week. But deep in the dwam of my Apple-philia, I’ll repeat some of my critiques on the day.
Essentially, it’s this: What the seductive power of Apple, Google, Amazon and all shows is how a revived, turbo-charged “info-capitalism” is just as likely as a sharing, non-monetary “post-capitalism” over the next few decades. The one useful fact I’ll ever remember about the internet is that it could have been built entirely differently.
Deep nerds will know the name of the computer programmer Ted Nelson. Nelson’s Project Xanadu was the first to use the terms “hypertext” (the “H” of “HTML”) and “hypermedia” in the early 60s. But Nelson’s intended “network” was very different from the sprawling, open, contagious structure that spun out from a variety of places from the mid-90s onwards. Nelson wanted a Net in which people tightly managed what they sent out; where they got a royalty when anyone used their content.
Nelson wanted an internet of pay-per-click, no matter how small the amount. He was (and is) deeply opposed to what actually emerged – this near-organic combination of infinite phone-lines meeting endless photo-copiers, whizzing content free across the world with no in-built controls, and damn the consequences to its originators. Mr Nelson is not, in short, a fan of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web.
Now, as you juggle your various Cupertino-designed devices, you’d have to admit that, in the present day, Nelson’s vision is at least competing hard with Berners-Lee’s. Apple, in particular, are brilliant at getting money out of us, by matching our common-sense behaviour with our information devices.
It’s mostly those wee Apps. For the price of a decent sandwich these little squares can help you catch your train, curate your photo memories, pay your bills. And that’s info-capitalism for you – making sure the price is right, and the product is of enough utility to justify the price. Ka, and furthermore, ching.
But where Paul’s case that a post-capitalism “can surely do better than this” lands with me is when I go to my Amazon Kindle app (which, in a very Star Trek way, can be read across all three of my Apple devices).
I have a bad vibe about Amazon; I really don’t trust them. To be sure, for an ideas freelancer like myself, Kindle has often been a godsend. No bookshop could be better stocked, or always available at the moment when no decent bookshops are around.
But some of the prices! Amazon (and the publishers who work through them): do you think we’re mugs? Why should something which is a squirt of zeros and ones down a cable retail for only a few pennies less than a paper-and-ink product? Also: why can’t I easily lend one of these e-Books to my friends? Also: how do I know you won’t change the terms-and-conditions, and start charging me by each page read: Nelson’s micro-payment dream realised? And another thing…
You get the point. Mason’s ambition in his Post Capitalism book is to intensify these banal frustrations into a grand realisation that conventional economics is over. Given that digital information is intrinsically abundant, asserts Mason, with the potential for infinite copying and sharing, doesn’t every biz model that tries to manage it as a “scarcity” verge on the absurd?
With the right mix of social experiment and state policy, Mason holds that the amazing fecundity of cyberculture could increasingly give us many services we need for close to nothing – what he calls a “zero-marginal cost” – by comparison with the market system. He may be right.
We need some tangible wins, though. For example, what stops Kindle – an attractive but endless money pit, in my experience – having a “public library” channel? To some degree, it is territorial, state or governmental regulators who should have a bit more confidence and sense of the public good about them.
Will this bolshie spirit of taking back the networks from the new mercantilists also dispel the stupor of Apple-zoids like myself, mouth-breathing intensely as we wait for the new shiny-touchy thing from 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino?
I hope so. I just took a selfie on my iPhone 6. Frankly, it’s not a good look.
My Saturday column in The National (online edition), July 18th, 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
A BBC worth defending?
THE future of the BBC is the obvious topic of the week, on both sides of the Border. It catches me as I’m doing a turn at the corporation’s beating heart — as one of the critics’ panel on Radio Four’s Saturday Review, on tonight.
It’s a fabulous gig, custom-designed to annoy every one of the BBC’s enemies. You get to swan around London seeing hot art and orotund theatre, reading buzzy novels and watching gloomy European movies. Ban this bourgeois-bohemian filth! (Actually, Saturday Review was originally commissioned by oor ain James Boyle, once director of Radio Scotland and then Radio Four. So blame him).
But there is one item we’re covering tonight which— no matter how many saltires and Yes flags I’m happy to see waving outside Pacific Quay — makes me unproblematically defensive of the basic concept of the BBC.
It’s called Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, a two-parter by historian David Olusoga. The documentaries lay out with patience and precision the extent of slave ownership in the UK at the time of abolition in 1840.
They itemise and contextualise the £17 billion (in today’s money) paid to those owners as “compensation” for loss of their “property”. Proportionately, by the way, Scotland had the most slave owners (it’s not like we don’t need to discuss this, folks).
It’s brilliant, moving, shaming, radicalising TV. It doesn’t shy away from contemporary parallels (the slave economy was “too big to fail”, it gave birth to racial ideologies that persist to this day). The panel gave it a thumbs-up, the full Blue Peter badge. Answering the BBC’s historic brief, the show “informs”, “educates” and even “entertains”, so beautifully is it made.
This BBC — not the BBC of Saville and Hall, of massive Newsnight cock-ups, of bloated fees for “Talent” and management, of cloth-ears and establishment collusion during the indyref — is the one you’d go to the wall for. Or, if you had a mind to found a small new European state, the BBC you’d want to set your own public service broadcasting star by.
As in so many aspects of Scottish experience at the moment, we see the Tory free-market fundamentalisms bearing down on the BBC, and understand it as a distant attack on familiar battlements — knowing that we have an escape route ready, if we can just amass the nerve to attempt it. Like Scotland, the BBC is both on their target list and their neglect list. We might have stuff to learn from each other.
One area of mutual interest may be technological. We often neglect the BBC’s crucial role as an innovator, beyond just TV and radio programming. And some imagine that this role might well be the ultimate saving of it.
Do you remember Ceefax? Launched on September 23, 1974, as the first teletext system in the world, it was effectively the internet before the internet. For a few years, you could even download computer programmes from Ceefax to your BBC Micro — which was itself a stunningly bold intervention.
The BBC Micro was a UK-made open computer, running several programming languages (including BBC Basic). It was the instrument for the Beeb’s island-wide Computer Literacy Project, launched in December 1981.
Generations of geeks pay tribute to the BBC Micro as the inspiration of their coding passions. And they’re still trying to inspire. The BBC Microbit came out last week. This buzzing, blinking little device (free to all 11-12-year-olds) has the same ambition to tech-educate kids — but for a different era.
Part of the current complaint against the BBC, ironically, is that it’s far too digitally literate anyway. There are claims that its massive online news operations — local, national and global — crowd out commercial providers at each of these levels.
At the Edinburgh Television Festival Lecture in 1996, the then director-general John Birt said that, without digitalisation, the BBC would be “history”. With 59 per cent of adults who get their UK news online using primarily BBC sites, the organisation has been a victim of its own roaring success.
Some within the building argue that the best defence is visionary attack. The BBC’s head of archive, Tony Ageh, has for the last few years been saying that the corporation should be the lead developer of something called “digital public space”.
It’s undeniable that commercial interests currently shape and direct our access to network society. Even the most seemingly enduring services could one day financially crash, fall or merge into something different. Can there be a Lord Reith-like assertion of the digital rights of the everyday citizen – backed up not just by law, but by actual content and structures?
The key is open access to the island’s content archive — not just of the BBC’s content, but from cultural institutions, local government, education, and other publicly funded bodies, says Ageh.
We should guarantee access to, and usage of, all the content the British public has paid for over the years. Further, we should corral and regulate a zone of our bandwidth that is truly public; whose platforms and tools evolve at a pace which serves the citizen, not the shareholder.
Ager asks: can all this make up a renewed argument for the licence fee?
I’m not sure whether this “Beebnet” fits, or jars, with current crude Tory visions of a BBC doing less popular programming, and more of a “higher quality”. But I can say to its advocates that the idea of a “digital public space” chimes very well not just with Scottish aspirations, but also actions.
The kailyard of Scottish media broadcasting, as we know, sports many jaggy thistles. The BBC’s own audience surveys identify that only 48 per cent of people in Scotland think the Corporation “represents their life well” in news and current affairs content, compared with 61 per cent in England, 61 per cent in Northern Ireland and 55 per cent in Wales.
Last week’s Ofcom report on public sector broadcasting backs this up, but broadens it out: Scotland has the second highest proportion (21 per cent) of its audience who “feel negatively portrayed” in broadcast media, more than the North of England but less than Northern Ireland.
We know — in fact, if you are reading this on tablet or paper, you are physically holding — the consequences of this degree of Scottish popular alienation from mainstream media.
We know the range of crowd-funded websites and editorial floors that have sustained themselves — and thereby constructed their own “digital public spaces” – through indyref and the last UK General Election.
And while I’m sure all of them treasure their practical (as well as their ideological) independence, I know that all of them would want a national public broadcaster and regulator in Scotland that was genuinely worthy of the name.
But I wonder whether Ageh’s Beebnet vision meshes more with the way that an engaged and enlivened Scots populace might think about their media these days. What might a comparable “ScotNet” be like?
I would have thought there was huge Scottish appetite for a public media system which (to some degree) takes its priorities from its links with community users; and which takes as a major aim the archiving of, and universal access to, the nation’s culture and data.
I’ll leave it to others to argue the usual Caledonian toss for bigger programme budgets, killer franchises, loosened strings from Auntie. I’d rather be inspired by the BBC as the baggy, unpredictable, creative monster that it can be. And wonder, not for the first time, whether this is yet another classic collective British institution that is better defended on Scottish soil.
Pat Kane (www.patkane.today) is a musician and writer. Saturday Review is on tonight, 7.15pm, BBC Radio 4
My Saturday column in The National (online edition), July 11th, 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
Trouble at the heart of Eutopia
AS the brutal opera of the EU-Greece stand-off shouts itself to a conclusion – and Sunday’s meeting of national leaders seems like a decisive moment – one term in the discourse constantly annoys me. And that’s “Europe” itself: the abstraction, the single entity, even the land border. I mean, really?
You can, Mr Coburn, regard the English puddle – sorry, Channel – as some profound civilisational break. Fine, if you want. But when you plaster that heaving tangle of history, culture, landmass, language, aspiration and frustration with the label “Europe”, let’s at least concede the sheer complexity of the reality behind the name.
Before you engage with the “idea” of Europe – and battalions of furrowed academics are only a web-search away to help you – it may be worth asking first some simple, personal questions. These are way at the other end of Maastricht, Lisbon, the Troika, structural adjustment, TTIP: the mega, macro-level Europe whose overall vision we are now, disturbingly, beginning to doubt.
So, the question: In what ways do you feel European? Could you ever claim this as an identity?
If I think about myself as a European, I confess it is a mad spaghetti of roots and routes, experiences and ideas. My biological grandfather, through my mother’s side, was a certain “Mr Wax” (short for, we think, Wachowski), a Prussian sailor who clearly made a serious impression on the maidens of Glasgow in the 1930s.
My mum’s grandmother – herself, again, the outcome of an all-too-brief encounter – was eventually located in Naples. In the early 1950s, my mum ended up confronting the imperious lady amid the elegant townhouses of the city’s Mergellina district.
Mother Mary ended up staying there for four years, plying her trade as a nurse in the city’s poor houses and hospitals. She was eventually engaged to a hot-shot lawyer, toured the continent with pioneering neurosurgeons, read Robert Burns to ailing Contessas in hilltop mansions on the isle of Capri…
As she tells these stories, which seem to combine Catherine Cookson with a pinch-waisted Sophia Loren, we often ask her: “Er, Mum, why exactly did you come back?” (that’s another long story).
But what this established was a regular family experience of Italian holidays. Not just my mother speaking fluent and gestural Neapolitan to delighted hoteliers, but the train trip through Europe to get there (courtesy of my Dad’s travel concessions, as a British Rail wages-clerk).
A poke of chips in the Gard du Nord was exciting enough. But most thrilling was the regular wake-up in the middle of the night, to see the blue-and-white Alps appear intermittently at the window, as our sleeper barrelled through the Simplon tunnel.
So Coatbridge existence had more than a few tracks into the heart of Europe. I won a Barclays Bank essay competition, as a 17-year-old St Ambrose Roman Catholic Comprehensive kid. The prize was in effect a “grand tour” of European capitals with a 100 other schoolkids. There was more explored than maps on that tour ... through the pink, throbbing haze, I do remember the German university town of Heidelberg being like something from a Disney movie.
And if you want to consummate anything at the end of a trip, do it in the Hotel Daniele in Venice.
When I became a creative grown-up, perhaps in sync with the increasing integration of Europe – as an infrastructure, a marketplace, a set of agreed standards – I can look back on what is, in retrospect, a reasonable European lifestyle.
There were many jaunts out to Europe with musicians, both recording and performing. In particular a support tour with Joe Jackson who seemed to mostly only want to play Roman theatres and Art Deco palaces (we weren’t complaining).
In the last decade, I’ve taken the case for play and creativity to just about every European capital. A few weeks ago I spent a week in Amsterdam with a bunch of futurists, met up with my design student daughter in Delft, and ended up at the Milan Expo talking about play, inside a pop-up exhibit sponsored by a certain D-I-Y Swedish furniture maker.
As you wheech from one place to the other (more trains, plus planes, on travel expenses) it becomes all too easy to feel like a “European” – if by that, you mean the networked, boundary-crossing cosmopolis of the creative classes.
Because the talent swirls in from all over the continent (and the world), English is the default language. The money cards work, the transport systems are usually quickly masterable. Even your smart phone can walk you to the most tastefully chosen destination. And beneath and around media chancers like me, there’s a new generation fuelled by Easyjet, Eurostar or Erasmus (the continental student study programme).
All of this is “Eutopia”, the Europe that functions – at least for those with either the resources, or the ambition, to be mobile and purposeful in this space. And if I think for a moment about my own background, from very early on, I’ve been ready and waiting for it.
TO come back to our acute political moment, I guess this is what is most frustrating about the way the EU ministers and technocrats have responded to the Syriza government’s mandates, which urge a moderation or reversal of austerity economics.
Syriza’s Greece is not anti-EU – indeed, they are in their own way, EU visionaries. “We need to fight against the idea of a Fortress Europe”, said the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, during 2014’s elections for the European Parliament, and “conceive an inclusive form of community”.
I came into politics via Jim Sillars’ 1980s concept of a Scotland “independent in Europe” – which was always a connectionism, not a separatism, for me. Jim (as is his carnaptious way) now would urge a Scottish state to keep its distance from the current EU.
The facts are that it’s been captured by harsher capitalist, and supra-national, imperatives than when he first suggested his idea. When the facts change, Jim changes his mind. What do you do?
The EU can be a sair fecht. Take the trade agreements and competition policies that threaten to privatise our health services (or CalMac ferry routes) without any national-democratic say. Never mind the elite intimidation (familiar to all Yessers) of the expressed will of Greek voters.
I think its fair to ask that “European Scots” like myself should begin a real self-examination of our faith in certain European processes.
But let’s remember: a “social Europe” (Syriza’s consistent demand) was always supposed to be the complement to an “economic Europe”. And not just freedom to work anywhere, but also free access to the collective supports (education, housing, welfare) which sustain a life of enterprise, adventure and adaptation.
Like some of you I’m sure, I have had a lifetime of experiencing a sociable Europe – a Europe of encounters and exchanges, a willingness to explore differences on the basis of a common ground that’s not too difficult to achieve. This is what seems so un-European about the EU-Greek situation – and with Greece, birthplace of democracy and reasoned, patient, philosophical discussion, of all countries!
We’re all watching the clash of titans and leaders here. But I believe there is a heart of, and in, Europe, which we can access if we simply think of how deeply intertwined we all are – peoples, regions, cities, villages, individuals. Sentimental, yes. But not much else seems to be working.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today).
My column for the Scottish Socialist Voice, July 7, 2015
A Red/Green bloc is needed at Holyrood
By Pat Kane
As they used to say about Frank Sinatra: it’s a SNP world—we just live in it. Or at least it sometimes seems that way, in terms of the Scottish National Party’s recent history.
A leading voice in the multi-and-no-party Yes movement which lead up to a 45 per cent endorsement for independence, the SNP has benefitted from that mobilisation (and a broken electoral system) to the tune of 56 MPs at the last General Election. A week ago, a poll put the SNP on 60 per cent of the constituency votes for the next Holyrood Elections in May 2016.
But as we know in Scotland, our “list” vote—the second candidate we vote for in our national elections, who gets in on their party’s proportion of that region’s votes—allows the opportunity to express our political complexity.
For years myself, I have flipped between voting SNP, Green and SSP, in various combinations of constituency and list, in Scottish elections. It feels like I’m being allowed to be a sophisticated citizen—and it feels like parties are being allowed to be exactly who they want to be.
That moment is coming again. But post-18 September 2014, and 7 May 2015, means not just the ascendancy of the SNP but the sheer collapse of the Scottish Labour Party. So now I feel that my flexible voting patterns (thought not that flexible—I’ll only vote for independence-supporting parties in Scotland) need some new degrees of movement.
Should the SNP be as dominant in the Holyrood Parliament as their Westminster representation makes them in Scotland? Let’s be honest: it just doesn’t feel right. Is it the SNP’s fault that they are a brilliantly disciplined left-of-centre campaign machine and governing strategy? And that their primary opponents (Scottish Labour) are paying for decades of complacency, patronisation and misunderstanding of the popular desire among Scots for self-rule? No to both.
But I always wonder what kind of White Paper would have been offered if it was an “independence majority” that had triggered the process, rather than an SNP majority in Holyrood.
Would we have had a more diverse front-foot political leadership of the movement? Would our currency options have been multi-option from the start?
Would we have avoiding trying to square removing Trident with joining the NATO nuclear umbrella? Would have had much stronger and more redistributive wage and fiscal policies?
Indeed it’s the flaws in the SNP’s “indy life” offer presented to the Scottish people the last time which makes me, once again, desire a multi-party “indy majority” at the next Holyrood election.
We have to be ready for any of a number of factors tripping the next indyref process—both pull (eg, a majority mandate for that in a Scottish Parliament) and push (eg, the rise of a English national resistance to continued links with Scotland).
But we have to go with a “prospectus” that is a lot more straight and wise about the short-and-medium term outlooks for independence. The Syriza situation doesn’t always travel well to the Scottish context.
Pre-any indy run up, we will not be (and we were not) fighting for our economic lives, with only the weapons of persuasion or withdrawal at our disposal. But we surely do recognise the degree of attack and intimidation by financial and political elites on the legitimacy and strategy of Syriza.
No matter their actions at a macro-level, they have built up a reserve of collective social trust in Greek society which makes the people ready for the next stage of struggle for their country. We have to build that same level of trust in Scotland—or perhaps test this new state of political awareness that’s so often proclaimed.
And that will be generated by being honest with Scottish voters, about how Scots may have to tax more, and live with less, in order to shift the fundamental structures of an independent Scotland towards a more social-democratic, maybe even democratic-socialist norm.
In my mind, that honesty will only come about if a much bigger bloc of left-green parties, maintaining their commitment to independence—is playing a decisive role at Holyrood in May 2016. Ideally they’d hold the balance of power, but at the very least bite into the Labour seats—providing a huge representative symbol that independence was the eventual aim of the Scottish people.
How does this work at the level of electoral tactics between, say, the Scottish Greens, and whatever collection of parties (including the SSP) the Left Project eventually unite under their banner? I don’t know—I’m not an expert. But even as a Scottish Green party member, I am continually disappointed in my own party’s tribalism.
In my online and offline conversations, too many are unwilling to even begin to work out what would be needed to maximise this left-green vote, in terms of merging candidates in appropriate areas, pooling activist resources, etc.
Does it look like the Scottish Greens and Left Project/SSP will be duking it out for the share of the non-SNP Yes voter, or the utterly disillusioned left-wing Labour voters? Sadly it does. Do I think that parties only seem to respond to the inevitable after punching themselves repeatedly in the nose? Yes I do.
So perhaps we need another SNP landslide, and the bloody-nosed failure of the Scots left and green parties, to forge the radical front that we should be able to build right now. Sigh. But if we want a radical democracy in Scotland, and we don’t think the SNP are the only instrument to achieving it, some high-horses need to be unmounted. Sooner or later.
• Pat Kane is a writer and musician, and board member of Common Weal
My column on gene editing and the Glasgow anniversary for IVF treatment, The Scotsman (online version), Monday 6th July
Designs on humanity's future
Bioethics cannot give us a clear picture but at least Uncle Bobby can give us a loving result, writes Pat Kane
At first glance, this couldn’t be a happier tale.
Yesterday’s papers reported that an amazing reunion is about to take place. Over the past 30 years, 6,000 babies have been conceived through IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) at the Nuffield Hospital in Glasgow – and they are all invited to a celebratory event this summer.
Dr Bobby Low helped to found the unit, eight years after the first IVF baby Louise Brown was born on 5 July, 1978. By all reports charismatic and committed, Dr Low couldn’t be a more reassuring front-man for the benefits of reproductive medicine, going by his avuncular pictures yesterday.
Do we still call them “test-tube babies”? We used to (even though they were, technically, petri-dish babies). Indeed, it’s worth remembering the original fearful reaction.
No less a figure than James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA with Francis Crick, warned a US Congressional committee at the time that he foresaw “all kinds of bad scenarios… All hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world”.
Over four million extra and entirely unique humans later, you might imagine seventies’ talk about “clone armies” and “assembly-line foetuses” has gone the way of spacehoppers and T-Rex. But with each new unlocking of the inner mechanisms of genes, cells and embryos, the storm and thunder easily returns.
And rightly so, one would have to say. Scientists may propose (from the lab), but politicians dispose (through regulation). Both are under the pressure of a popular culture that both shudders at the prospect of meddling with human biology (zombies and Terminators), and gets a bit excited about the possibilities (movies like Lucy or Limitless).
It’s a diagram of forces that can seem messy, each pole struggling for authority. However, going by the record of IVF at least, its consequence is that we advance cautiously, but richly and effectively, upon the tricky terrain of designing human biology.
One crucial element is the way that scientists have become ever better storytellers and persuaders about what they do.
The tabloid headline “three-person embryos” could rival “test-tube babies” for luridness. But there was a thumping, free-vote majority in the House of Commons a few weeks ago, allowing research on mitochondrial IVF in humans to go ahead.
Simply put, the procedure removes the inheritable diseases that can be triggered by the mitochondrial DNA in a mother’s egg, and replaces them with non-faulty DNA from a third donor. The altered egg is then implanted back into the mother.
The Newcastle professor responsible for the research, Doug Turnbull, took an early decision to be a calm and ever-available advocate – talking to media, science festivals, religious gatherings, patients, regulators and politicians.
But it’s interesting to go into the specifics of this therapy, to see why it’s evaded the Frankenstein knee-jerk response. One in 6,500 children dies before adulthood from mitochondria-triggered conditions like Leigh’s disease, progressive infantile poliodystrophy and Barth syndrome – horrors that affect the brain, muscles, heart and liver. Who wouldn’t want to delete these from the human biological condition?
The mitochondrial DNA sit outside the nucleus of a cell – and it’s the DNA in the nucleus that controls eye and hair colour, along with other specific human traits. So we’re clearly alleviating suffering, say the three-parent baby makers – we’re not providing future fascists with the tools to make blue-eyed, blonde-haired paragons.
But science, as you’d expect, immediately drives us to consider whether that’s already a possibility. As reported this May, scientists at Sun Yat-sen University in China have been the first to edit genes from the human nucleus. (They used embryos no older than the 14-days-old international limit, and of a quality unfit for further use in IVF.)
Their aim was to eliminate a rare inherited blood disease. But according to the National Institute of Health in the US, and the leading scientific journal Nature, the Chinese scientists have “crossed a line”.
If we can go into our core DNA, and identify not just diseases but attributes to precisely snip, tuck and replace (the technology is called, predictably, CRISPR), we open up “a path towards non-therapeutic genetic enhancement”, says the Natureeditorial.
Halt! Bio-Nazis On Robo-Bikes up ahead! But we can do better than this, if we want to consider the impacts of “germline editing” (as it is officially called). One other major influence of how we cope with the transformations of science are the bioethicists – who bring their own brand of intellectual fireworks to the fray.
You don’t want to choose and edit what genetic mutations to pass on to your children? Well, you make that choice when you become a smoker, which mutates the DNA in your sperm. You also make that choice when you decide to become a father later rather than earlier, as age increases the level of mutations.
Except with those choices, the mutations are entirely random and uncontrolled. Wouldn’t you prefer to control them as much as possible? It is notoriously difficult to generate viable embryos under IVF. So would you prefer to discard the ones at fault? Or would you rather exert precise and loving care upon the ones you do have?
Another set of ethicists raise the prospect that a human population whose germline genes are too edited for public health reasons might fall foul of epidemics. That’s because genetic mingling and diversity is one of the best ways to build resilience against infectious disease.
But all the ethicists ask us to remind ourselves just how robust, and how globally binding, our existing procedures and protocols are. And also how necessary it is to sometimes take an experimental leap.
IVF treatment excises one quarter of the chosen embryo’s cells. Did we know what all the future consequences for the coming child would be from this bold, violatory act? But here we are, with millions born that wouldn’t have been, and incalculable parental happiness.
The future comes at different paces. While our digital revolution flashes all around us at light-speed, showering us with options to click or interact, the bio-century seems to be moving with a much slower, more deliberative rhythm.
We can silently thrill (guilty as charged) to all the sci-fi dilemmas available around bioscience. You know, genetic overclasses having privileged access to human enhancements, wearing pointed plastic shoulderpads, sneering at underlings in their RADA accents, etc.
Or we can find a moment’s calm in the idea of “Uncle Bobby” (as many of his beneficiaries know him) and his thousands of love-driven triumphs over the limitations of human biology, just a few minutes from Glasgow’s Great Western Road.
Francis Fukuyama once called this “our posthuman future”. It still seems pretty human to me.
My Saturday column in The National (online edition), July 4th 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
Spornosexuality, Peak Beard and Narcissus 2.0
THE current posters for Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to Steven Soderberg’s thoughtful 2012 movie about male strippers, would stop a bloke dead in the street. (As for the other sex, I won’t presume your reaction). The dancers come at you like condoms stuffed with, if not quite walnuts, then more than a few plump cashews — all the while throwing hip-hop shapes like it’s 1999.
One side of my brain responds with an army of concepts about current masculinity, the identity of the “worker”, the growing consumer power of women, etc. All that to be explored later. The other side is at first intimidated, then contemptuous, but finally has to admit: I have also mildly aspired to the same state of shaved-ape sleekness.
I’ve only been a gym bunny about twice in my life — once in the mid-nineties, after a first child had settled into school and some hours had opened up in my freelance day. And about seven years ago, when a relaunch of the band required me to shrink waist, not stretch pant. A steadily increasing cascade of twinges and muscle-pings eventually made it grim rather than energising.
But more off-putting, to be honest, was the regular proximity to other gym bunnies. I’ve heard the most sulphurous sexism in locker rooms, conducted at full “awright-big-man” volume, presuming a general consensus. And when I took my place at the running machine, I faced a mirrored wall that presented back to you some puffing, grimacing version of myself. Who was that guy?
Alongside me, others ran like robot warriors of the future, or took what amounted to purposeful strolls. Anyway, there we all were, self-judging and judging others, with racks of muscle-fibre-wrenching machinery ahead of us, and a detailed work plan to execute. It felt like Las Vegas had moved into prison-management. I’ve rarely been back.
Were there positive physical results? Sure. I remember a few music tours when I felt myself leaping around the stage like a rabbit on uppers; when narrow suits aspired to, were in fact neatly occupied; when performance challenges were taken on and overcome.
But I also remember, sneaking up on me, a general impatience, even an anger that came quickly to the surface. I realised I had quietly adopted a moral high-ground, joined the one true church of the cardiovascular. That also had its toxic consequences for those around me. Now I’m solely a long-walks man, listening sedately to Radio 4 podcasts for an hour.
So I know from the inside, at least a bit, what the wider significance of Magic Mike’s males-performing-for-women means. The feminist critique that I remember from my university years was that it was women who have historically performed their femininity for the male gaze, thus reflecting (and reinforcing) their lower power status in society.
That the gaze has been so dramatically flipped around with movies like this — which sit within an easily identifiable trend of the objectified male body, from David Beckham to Calvin Harris — indicates that a power redistribution between men and women must be going on.
Yet the male anxiety of a performing media and music career has been with me from the moment I left college. Are you selling yourself properly? Are you hitting the performative mark? To be an 80’s-90’s musician was to have a very early training in what has been called, for the last decade or so, “metrosexuality”.
But with these near-superheroic bodies now almost a norm for men at the heart of popular culture — music videos, reality TV shows, adverts, taps-aff celebrating footballers — we are moving beyond the search for the ultimate moisturiser.
The coiner of “metrosexual”, cultural critic Mark Simpson, has come up with an terrible term to describe the current pecs spectacle: Spornosexuality. Meaning it’s sports, but it’s also pornography, that is setting a new bar for male physical appearance. I know what he means — but I don’t think it quite explains what’s going on.
The current standard model of capitalism says that persuasive communication, sensitively designed services and “seducing the customer” are what gets your business ahead. So for workers in that “affective” capitalism, it becomes a competitive advantage to combine inner and outer attractiveness. As much as women, men get caught up in that process, er, willy-nilly.
But what is fascinating is not just that this self-regard can become excessive — Narcissus 2.0 — but that these excesses have contrary pulls. Why do many men both pump themselves up to an Adonis-level — which delivers the ultimate self-confidence in the modern, display-oriented workplace — but then often embark on a frenzy of tattooing and body-marking? A primitivism that curls up over the sales-floor neck collar, or sneaks out from beneath the cuff?
I want to combine this with the Peak Beard phenomenon. You know: comely young men deciding to let their pearly chops erupt with mountain-man growths, so dense you could store house keys there.
Between the abs, the tats and the beards, it seems obvious to me that these are wee cultural ripples in the continuing long wave of masculine status-anxiety — an anxiety generated by feminism consolidating its gains, and advancing on the remaining inequalities. So doth these plastic patriarchs protest too much? Yes. But as a protest, at least it’s at the cute end of the style spectrum.
Will all this stuff settle down, eventually? Will men and women be able to be cool about both their equality, and their differences, their norms, and their chosen deviations? Will they be able to live relaxedly with each others’ sexual personae, without any asymmetry of power being implied?
I know — and, no doubt, you know — that in many places, whether in organisations or in urban spaces, that is already the case, particularly with younger generations of workers or fellow citizens. Whatever span of humanity comes under the letters “LBGTI” (and the acronym seems to get longer all the time), they compel a respect for diversity and idiosyncrasy. This has only had good effects on the “straight” world (or “heteronormative”, to show off my credentials). We live in a moment of advanced civility which is worth celebrating.
And while the crowds go off to Magic Mike XXL, I will only observe that I have been enjoying a different spectacle of partially clothed women, performing strenuously for an audience glued to their screens the women’s football World Cup finals. I’ve always been an intrinsic fan of women’s football — a combination of enjoying the tenor and pace of women’s games, and also being a father of two daughters, with whom I regularly enjoyed down-the-park kickabouts.
But I hardly need to overstress the cultural conjunction. From the First Minister and her cabinet down, I am very happy to live in more womanly times — in a Scotland which should be aware of all the future benchmarks it could achieve, beyond the strictly constitutional. However, between Tatum Channing’s dance moves in his furniture workshop, and Carli Lloyd’s spot kicks for the USA team, I will allow myself one piercing shaft of body anxiety.
Stepping away from the summer cheesecake, now. Slowly.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer.
My column on the latest bout of cyber-nattery for The Scotsman (online version), Monday 29th June
The Internet is not just for trolls
Smartphones, social media and the internet can all be a powerful force for good in the right hands, writes Pat Kane
I’ve read the Google doc of SNP members and their abusive social media comments, pulled together by Scottish Labour. I expect there to be lists of not-indy-supporting-party members, with their relevant swear words and harsh indictments on Twitter and Facebook, circulating sometime soon.
As the old joke goes: if you have enough keywords, search engines, monkeys, typewriters, etc… But Excel Wars: The Template Strikes Back! is not much of a policy initiative to launch the brave new Scottish Labour movement, is it? (Though “movement”, as a metaphor, has potential).
But anyway: to the offensive vocabulary. In nearly 30 years of activism in and around Scottish independence, have I ever used the words “quisling” or “traitor” in relation to my political opponents? Never. Have I ever heard it? Very, very occasionally. There are shouty, manichean accusers in the SNP, of course – as viscerally furious about barriers to nationalist advance as the SWP and Labour Militants were about socialism’s prospects.
But the sheer unfairness of this is breathtaking. A dossier of Mr Angries venting on their “dumbphones” is being associated with the inspiring, encompassing, civic humanity of the independence movement, in its particular expression through the SNP membership. As a persuasion strategy – trashing by association the massive vote for steady optimism and progress that happened in May – I’ve heard better.
And as to the sexist/misogynist language of the SNP tweeters: I understand that Stuart Campbell, editor of website Wings Over Scotland, has been reposting a mild selection of the last few months’ social media hatred of Nicola Sturgeon, centring on her parentage, body shape – the usual metrics. Hopefully he’ll stop soon, as the point has already been pungently made.
So what is to be done? A lot in some directions, near to nothing in others. But let me declare myself a free speech fundamentalist to begin with. We don’t quite have as many words in Scots for “vigorous, candid public debate” as the Eskimos reputedly have for snow – but it takes only a minute for several to come to mind: stooshie, stramash, bourach, flyte, rammy, barney.
So I’m not into any mutual agreement that might lead to any kind of legislative constriction of public speech. Enough of that with the recent sectarian laws. We know we can do Scottish collectivism; let’s remember to do Scottish liberalism as well.
But for a minute, some historical perspective. We’re furiously politicking about realities and behaviours that, 30 years ago, were the dreams of science fiction writers. In 1985, apart from a few committed small magazines, pirate radio stations, or raggedly radical newspapers, the means of producing media were in large, centralising hands.
Whether it was teeming editorial floors feeding thundering paper presses, or lumbering TV cameras in cavernous studios, both required an ant heap of specialised workers to function. Serious revenue was needed too, brought in from cash sales and advertising, or a compelled licence fee.
If you wanted to express yourself to an audience beyond your friends in the pub, or the local speakers corner, you had to “join the media” – either by starting at the gofer level, or coming out of a reputed journalism college and getting an entry-level reporting job.
Dodgy celebs like me could occasionally lever themselves into opinion page slots (my first newspaper column, in 1988, was right here). But you generally had to become a “media professional” to get the chance to make media.
How much more different could it be now? I have written part of this article with my thumbs, while on a budget airline, using document software on a smartphone. If I flick around the apps on this phone, I can find tools which are direct equivalents to each chunk of the old media. Video recorder, editing suite and live broadcast facility? Camera, iMovie, Periscope. An editorial team to bounce ideas around, a newspaper archive, publishing presses? My peers on Twitter or Facebook; Google search; my Typepad blog software.
I could add more powers. The ability to make graphics, or podcasts; to navigate my way to nearly any spot in any city or town in the world; to be my own “gofer”, self-scheduling through automated services. My scarcity is the time and money to actually be a broadcast network or an editorial flow (to which crowdfunding or alternative currencies might be the start of an answer). But the potential is there.
And I find myself expressing a “media function” throughout my daily life – engaging in debates on Twitter while waiting in queues or for buses; noting or recording some scrap of value from a casual conversation; being a photojournalist almost without thinking, snapping the defining moment of the day before me.
Am I a bit tech-excessive/obsessive here? No doubt: I hold my geek hands high. But even if a significant majority only have some of these tools in their pocket, and only used a few of those, it still represents a radically different world of media in 2015. 30 years from now, what revolutions again?
The Catalan social theorist Manuel Castells has an inelegant but precise term for all this: “mass self-communication”. He has also been suggesting, since the mid-1990s, that we call ourselves a “network society”. It felt like a mildly science-fictional concept then. As we’ve become a people who gaze down, as well as around and at each other, conducting our invisible and silent interactions, “network society” now seems like our banal reality.
To ask “what kind of internet do we have?” is, I would argue, the same question as “what kind of society do we have?” The net is now – not entirely but inescapably – the very social fabric we live through.
Now, the potential for all this to fuel a world-beating version of a good society – by means of motivated networks of education and organisation, information and inspiration – is incalculable. There are so many cyber-candles lit on the Yes/Independence side that the darkness beyond them is barely worth cursing.
But we won’t be rewarded for playing small. The best internal regulator of how independence supporters should conduct all their engagements, on or offline, is the maxim “be the Scotland you wish to see”. It’s not easy to do. But we can start with our thumbs. All of us, on all sides.
My Saturday column in The National (online edition), June 27th, 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
As hip-hop once again becomes the voice of American protest where’s ours?
I’M playing Glastonbury tomorrow – well, in a way. Call it a small (potentially very muddy) side-benefit of three years of indyref table-thumping. Brother Billy Bragg has invited me to speak at his Left Field zone (the Left Project’s Cat Boyd is on today), along with ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone, the head of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, and the journalist John Harris. My pal Robin McAlpine, founder of Common Weal, sat on this stage last year. I expect a Daily Mail drone to be hovering over my bins soon, x-raying the contents furiously.
Is this the last residue of Glastonbury’s hippie radicalism? I’m sure we’ll all give it, er, welly (though how much fomenting can be done from a prone position on a literary-festival-style couch is debatable). The headline act later that night is Paul Weller, a man from whom those of a certain generation might expect much, in terms of rousing a rock crowd to righteous anger.
But I’m not overly hopeful. Glasto seems to go in for unspecific, merch-moving epiphany these days. The key controversies are over whether hip-hop or R’n’B are “appropriate” for the big stages (nice dog-whistle politics implied there).
Yet who’d be a rocker (or soulster) with a conscience, and thus a burning message, to deliver to the bouncing tens of thousands – and watching millions – these days? The critical jeering; the outraged TV producers; the managers and A&R men having heart-attacks about their playlist prospects… By the time you get anywhere near the main-stage, you’ve no doubt built up such a web of music-biz dependencies that playing safe (or at least, playing ambiguous) is the obvious option.
Unless, that is, you’ve put a political critique at the heart of your music in the first place: add unassailable sales figures to that, and you might be able to burn through the wet mattress of careerism. I don’t fully check for Muse, but I deeply love the paranoid techno-critique that laces their current “Drones” album. I’d go to see how they answer the Nirvana challenge – “here we are now/entertain us” –with that body of work.
When Hue And Cry played Isle of Wight a few years ago, my partner and I hung around to watch Springsteen and the E-Street Band close the festival. Again, while not enthusiasts, we thrilled to his mastery of the great American music traditions.
But Springsteen hardly needed to slap politics on top of his songs. Call him a multi-millionaire bullshit artist if you wish – and many do – but he has a body of work addressing American inequalities and injustices that goes back 40 years. It’s baked into his art; he’s been unable to stop scratching that itch. So yes, the bathos on The Boss is only a search-query away. But on the day, the way his poetry and passion combined to articulate anger and hope for a better society was an incredibly powerful experience.
PERHAPS it takes a historic thunderclap to compel musicians to get their heads out of their own navels (or for that matter, other people’s). And maybe the times reveal the depth of the artist. Those of us who worship at the altar of the R’n’B colossus D’Angelo have intensified our devotion recently. He has raised his voice to address the Charleston shooting, the Ferguson riots, and the rising social anger gathering around the hashtag #blacklivesmatter.
Again, like Springsteen, D’Angelo has form as a political artist. His recent record, Black Messiah (over ten years in the making) is named after J. Edgar Hoover’s derisory label for powerful leaders of the civil rights movement.
In a recent New York Times article, D’Angelo hooks up with Bobby Seale, one of the founding Black Panthers, to cruise the streets of Oakland, California, the Panthers’ initial turf.
D is full of fire. He cites his song, The Charade: “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk... Crawling through a systematic maze of demise.” When asked how he feels about the public disorder of the last six months, he replies: “I feel awesome. What people call a riot I call a rebellion. In my humble opinion the word ‘riot’ is used by the media to dismiss or degenerate what’s really happening. Everybody knows the looting and burning is the voice of the unheard.”
Yet his hero, a now elderly Seale, tries to gently temper his young acolyte’s zeal – praising the Federal authorities for launching an investigation into Charleston, urging more action through the ballot box and the raising of black political ambition, even allowing the decency of police in the system (“some are my friends”).
Our drummer in Hue and Cry, Paul Mills, grew up in New Haven in the 60s and 70s, with many of his male relatives in the Panthers.
He describes them as very focused on the attainment of community power. “They were very practical, about economics, developing the place. Not all guns and threats.”
D’Angelo has been joined by the rapper Kendrick Lamar in speaking out against the “systematic” nature of violence perpetrated against the black population. Yet one can barely imagine what kind of new protest music could arise to protest this. A black President regularly hosts the ageing soul heroes of the 60s and 70s in the White House, yet seems to be leaving behind a more racially polarised America as his legacy. When the whole system looks fallen and compromised, a black punk may emerge, just as the early politicised hip-hop of Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy so inspired D’Angelo.
IS music still powerful and credible enough to be the lens that concentrates the voice of protest? In the indyref, we can’t say that significant Scottish artists didn’t try to write their motivating anthems. Stanley Odd’s Son I Voted Yes, and Paulo Nutini’s Iron Sky (the wee man roaring “Freedom!” at the top of his golden voice towards the end), are the two most notable examples.
But it seemed to me that social media images and memes were the real riffs being played to an audience by motivated artists; and when audiences did gather in halls, they actually wanted to hear the arguments first and foremost. It was also the nature of the cultural Yes movement – young, worldly, constantly checking themselves with their networks – that no-one wanted to be caught writing crude patriotic (or even ideological) songs. Scottish independence is about realising the power we already have, not about resisting the kind of ambient violence currently suffered by black folks in the US For which state of affairs, give thanks and praise.
However, if we can’t find troubadours to speak the sheer denigration of fixed-term benefits, or decry the soul-shrivelling scripts of retail employment, or the evoke the acute disorientation of the refugee in a strange land, then music on this island really will have died, at least from the fists down.
I regularly listen to Loki and the Cartel’s “Knightmare” to be reminded of what’s possible for modern protest music; I’d love to hear your recommendations. Will I find it at the over-mediated, big-name friendly, blissed-out group hug of Glastonbury? Maybe only if Brother Bragg reaches for his Telecaster.
Pat Kane is on at Glastonbury’s Left Field stage, 3-4pm, with Ken Livingstone, Shami Chakrabarti and others