In this politically depressing time, oddly, I'm feeling more politically optimistic than for a long time. Or part of me is. (I'm not going so far as to say politically active.)
Some particular things have helped. The New Statesman has become authoritative -- it now has some of the key players writing in it. In recent issues we’ve had Danny Blanchflower, the dissident Monetary Policy Committee member who alone turned out to have got it right about the coming receession, and the late G.A. Cohen -- a posthumous contribution on the appeal and the difficulty of socialism. (Jon Cruddas quoted him in a lecture the other day -- see below.)
I read Cohen’s obituary, too, and that sent me to read the less technical parts of one of his books in which he argues that, yes, what seemed to many the first serious and principled stab at a non-capitalist (Marxist) society, the USSR, turned out not to have been that, but that didn’t mean there was no point any longer in looking for alternatives to capitalism as ways of organising economy and society; he refused to draw the lesson of despair from that collapse. I immediately felt he was right.
I heard Jon Cruddas (left-wing Labour MP, possible leadership contender) who was intelligent, sane and well-read; as well as a list of good policies, he urged optimism and spirit: a better society is worth fighting for, the economy can be under human control, what the Tories have in store (see what the local councils they praise are doing) are worth resisting.
Both he and Will Hutton in a recent Observer lament the woeful ignorance of the public and the lamentable job the media do in informing us. Nick Cohen this morning writes about Stieg Larsson, a popular Swedish thriller writer, who came from a near-extinct European left-wing tradition that was both feminist and anti-racist -- reminding me once again, as Cruddas did, and as the late Harold Rosen did when John Hardcastle and I interviewed him, of the quality of political debate and organisation there used to be, in Britain as well as in Europe.
Hutton points out that media commentators as well as the rest of us seem almost universally ignorant that Alistair Darling has already announced in his April budget the measures to cut the deficit that they’re calling for him to announce.
The desire popped into my mind to have everyone who makes an ignorant political or economic remark taken into a room and made to understand (a) how ignorant he or she is and (b) the facts and arguments. Or imagine everything stopping and the whole population getting itself into small groups in houses, pubs, meeting halls, to try to get an understand. I think of those revolutions in which people talk non-stop and rush to read wall newspapers and pamphlets.
But then I realise that I'm one of the ignorant myself. I didn’t know, either, that those measures had been in the works since April. I had read neither the Budget nor the background papers.
By way of politics all I read is one newspaper and the New Statesman. I'd be much better informed if I read the online commentary and blogs attached to the newspapers -- but feel life’s too short. The paper is for mealtimes and knackered times, and if I'm at the computer I'm being productive, not receptive; and I spend enough time at the computer working for me not to welcome the idea of spending more time reading news and comment.
But -- I think is part of what’s new -- I now think I should do more to keep myself informed. 50-60 years ago and even more recently it was taken for granted by some of my teachers and then by some of my teacher colleagues that it was our duty as citizens to be informed and that ignorance was a shame to us. To refer now to that moral imperative would mainly produce a reaction of incomprehension or pity. Nor would I have been much more responsive myself over the last 30 years: I never liked doing the political stuff, Labour Party meetings were tedious, pressure groups and demos were dominated by people I disliked and despised and it wasn’t as if I had nothing to do with my time. Apart from anything else, I was an academic who pursued issues he found absorbing with some commitment and energy. If there was a moral argument about the informed citizen, I suppose I simply chose not to let it bother me.
Well, that isn’t good enough. Just as we should conserve energy and resources even though our own contribution is insignificant if we’re to feel ok with ourselves, so perhaps we have to live politically as if already in a better society. My being well-informed will make negligible difference but in the better society that’s worth hoping for people will act as if the decisions of government are in part their responsibility. Having people around who act as if the revolution (hopefully a gentle one) has already happened may help people to visualise a different possible future.
When teaching in schools, incidentally, I think I always saw my classroom as attempting a small-scale realisation of a good society. That being the priority, mixed-ability teaching was a given. The good that streamed/tracked teaching could bring about for some students (rarely, in my experience, those not in the top classes) had to be foregone as only a secondary gain.