Someone at BBC Radio 4 carried out a brilliant piece of scheduling this morning. After intermittently listening to the election results from 05:30 to 09:00, I found myself listening to a repeat of The Reunion, a programme chaired by Sue MacGregor, where participants in some notable past event are brought back together to reminisce. Today, it was Peter Brook's revolutionary 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, described at the time as "Best. Shakespeare. Ever", or words to that effect. What a contrast; talk about "look here upon this picture, and on this..." (sorry, that's Hamlet). That all-too-brief decade of post-1968 revolutionary turbulence provided my generation's formative years. Unfortunately, in contrast to the now 90-year-old Brook and his generation, who brought about that shining time, it seems all we were capable of delivering was Tony Blair. To a large extent, then, this is all our fault. Our best and brightest refused to get involved in anything short of a proper revolution. They're all out there, somewhere, still waiting.
Your blogger tends the People's flag, 1978
It all made me think of Miliband. Not poor old Ed -- did anyone really imagine him as Prime Minister? -- but his father, academic Marxist Ralph. His book, The State in Capitalist Society, was required reading for the serious student revolutionary back in my university days. Not that I ever read it -- I suppose I was at best a frivolous student revolutionary -- but I think his view can be summarised as: "The Labour Party is not a revolutionary party; parliamentary democracy can never change the balance of power between classes". Well, right enough. Presumably his boys Ed and David either thought him wrong or were more fascinated by the pursuit and exercise of power within those despised bourgeois institutions.
Did you ever read One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse? I'm not going to summarise it here -- I don't think I could -- but it was one of the few "political" books I did actually read as a student back in the mid-1970s that made any sense to me. "Free election of masters does not abolish masters or slaves" is only subtly different from the Ralph Miliband line; but the idea of "repressive tolerance" and the shift of emphasis from organised "class struggle" to freeing oneself from psychological and technological domination seemed more radical (and distinctly un-Marxist) and seemed to chime with my own experience. Of course, the really smart guys were all way past that easy-reader Frankfurt School stage -- Feyerabend's Against Method was the hot read, I seem to recall -- but, having somehow arrived in the political-philosophical powerhouse and career launch-pad of Balliol College, Oxford as a know-nothing Mirror-reader (whose only real talents were for reading poetry, drawing, and telling amusing stories) I was badly in need of some remedial reading.
Other cult classics I managed to digest were Life Against Death by Norman O. Brown, the Illuminations collection of Walter Benjamin's writings, and various of the post-structuralist books of Roland Barthes. I tried to read Marx and Lukacs and Althusser and Lucien Goldmann at the urging of Terry Eagleton and others but it was like eating porridge oats straight from the box. To be honest, I much preferred Carlos Castaneda.
A windy day in the Wilson-Heath years, 1974
I have no problem with being an intellectual lightweight. I did a few rounds with some genuine heavyweight title contenders back then, and quickly realised I was fighting in the wrong ring. I discovered I had better intuitive understanding than them, could more easily tolerate illogical, irrational and contradictory ideas, and was considerably better at making the unlikely leaps and links between apparently unconnected subjects that make for an amusing conversation. I was an artist, essentially, not a scholar or a politician. A piss-artist, others would have said, with some justification. But our rock-solid common ground was a conviction that the world needed to be changed, and could be changed.
Forty years on, I think very few people would still argue that "classical" Marxism offers an adequate critique of what is wrong with the world, and how to fix it. The world has changed, along lines that were better predicted by thinkers once discounted as outsiders and inconsequential oddballs, people like Herbert Marcuse and Marshall McLuhan, and even Fritz Perls and Wilhelm Reich. How? In the film The Usual Suspects, Verbal Kint, speaking of the disappearance of Keyser Söze, says "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist" (actually Baudelaire: "La plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu'il n'existe pas"). By shedding that giveaway top-hat and donning designer jeans, international capital has pulled off the same trick. But sometimes those standing back outside the crowd can better observe the moves of the ideological shell-game. They can more easily see the con that is perpetrated on those who stare fixedly at the moving cups, those who believe, "Next time I'll get it! Let's have another go!"
Perhaps now the essential political task, once more as in Peter Brook's time, is cutting through the illusion that this is all there is. Getting back the conviction that things can be different. Having the courage to try different things, and fail, without fearing the media backlash or the poll ratings would be useful. It would also help to figure out where the real battle is, and between whom and over what, then choose a side and stick to it. Winning elections is not enough: Miliband senior was probably right -- it may not be where the real political fight is happening, if it ever was. To despise and destroy those who stand in opposition, and to dance joyfully on their graves -- as we did in 1997 when Thatcher's exhausted Tory Party was finally and definitively trashed by a Labour landslide -- is never more than a short-term goal. We should never forget that Blair's Labour Party was handed a massive opportunity, three times, and wasted it, three times.
I do think some questions need to be asked at the BBC. For months, the broadcasters have talked up a predicted "hung Parliament", cutting off politicians attempting to present their policies, with a "Yeah, yeah, we know all about that, but what deals are you willing to do when nobody wins?" Everyone knew there was going to be a hung Parliament: why waste our time pretending there wouldn't be? The only interesting thing was who would get into bed with whom, and on what conditions. The rush to premature analysis -- to exercise hindsight in advance -- and the attempt to trip politicians into mis-speaking a headline are so much more fun for highly-paid media folk than simply providing a platform for mere here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians to peddle their wares to the voting public. Well, it seems "everyone" was wrong. Power without responsibility, I think, is the phrase I'm looking for.
Same old new dawn...