Socialist realism goes to the music hall

So, riffing a little on the Eurovision, it’s interesting to consider what travels well and what doesn’t. Comedy is a real minefield for this sort of thing. You can get away with a lot, of course, by relying on classic archetypes, but context is all.

For example, I’ve never met anyone in Belfast who like The Vicar of Dibley. Which is not to say that it’s an intrinsically bad show. But Dibley draws on a particular pop-cultural tradition of rural English life, with the vicar, the squire, the village fete and all the rest of it. Even though it’s a life that has nearly died out in England, one of the most urbanised countries in the world, it looms large enough in the culture to still provide comic mileage. I think it doesn’t travel to Ireland because, even though Ireland has a much bigger rural population, the whole rural culture is different. On the other hand, loads of Belfast people loved The Royle Family or Rab C Nesbitt, for obvious reasons.

Think of the TV shows the Brits have managed to sell to America – Steptoe becoming Sanford, Alf Garnett as Archie Bunker. Now think of those that didn’t sell. The US networks wouldn’t pick up a classic like Porridge, because the execs couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a sitcom with a career criminal as the hero. John Sullivan couldn’t get them to buy Fools and Horses, but Dear John (his finest creation IMO) went down a storm. The reason, I think, is that American popular culture doesn’t really have an equivalent of the wide-boy street trader, but there are plenty of divorcees around. You can’t beat universality. And the turnabouts you get with adaptation are often quite fascinating. Men Behaving Badly died on its arse in the US, according to the critics, because to an American audience two thirtysomething men living together weren’t ‘lads’ – they were gay. On the other hand, while we can tolerate Friends as an import, a British version wouldn’t work – the beautiful hipsters would just come off as unbearably smug.

And so, in the spirit of Eurovision, there’s the question of what appeals to Eastern Europe. To be honest, native product is a lot more popular these days, and much better than it was before the Wall fell. But there are a few interesting historical idiosyncrasies. I’m thinking, of course, of George Formby.

If the British left’s cultural critics would look beyond writing endless articles on “What the Clash meant to me”, they might find that George Formby has a lot to recommend him. He seems a bit passé nowadays, but if you go back to the Lancastrian master of the banjolele, you’ll find a lot of social commentary in his songs, and a surprisingly sharp wit. The latter often veers into Donald McGill ribaldry, and the Formby oeuvre contains an astonishing amount of phallic innuendo, enough to keep Graham Norton in knob jokes for the rest of his life.

Of course, in his famous trip to South Africa in 1946, George was the first entertainer to break the colour bar and perform to black audiences, and we should honour him for that alone. But what fascinates me is that in 1944 George was awarded the Stalin Prize on account of his films’ enormous popularity in the wartime Soviet Union. Why is this? I’ve never come across a Soviet equivalent of Ebert or Kael to explain the phenomenon. The only thing I can think of is that the stock Formby character, a plucky, good-natured little proletarian who wins through against the odds, sat well with Soviet sensibilities as well as being able to get past the Stalinist censorship regime.

Come to think of it, there might be a similar reason for Norman Wisdom’s cult following in Albania, which is usually put down to a personal eccentricity on the part of Uncle Enver.

This is all just pulling cultural theory out of my left ear, of course, but I have a feeling there’s a seam to be mined there. And reference to socio-political context might just explain why On the Buses was such a smash hit in Yugoslavia, something that’s always been a bit of an embarrassment to those of us who love the wit of Miroslav Krleža. Come to think of it, a sitcom about workers slacking off in an inefficient nationalised industry is an uncannily close metaphor for late Titoist Yugoslavia.

I still can’t for the life of me explain, though, why Cubans are so keen on George and Mildred. If you’ve any theories, feel free…

GUBU Corner: Marxists for Boris!

I want to tell you a story. Let’s start with the RCP. I used to hate the RCP when they were the RCP. I only ever read Living Marxism for its articles on culture, especially the brilliant TV reviews. I like them a bit better since they’ve stopped pretending to be Marxists, and occasionally hove over to Spiked for a dose of contrarianism from Uncle Frank and chums. Very rarely do I agree with anything they say, but then you don’t read Spiked to have your prejudices stroked.

So let’s talk a little about Socialist Action, a group that never had much in common with the RCP ideologically but in some ways was culturally similar. SA never formally dissolved like the RCP, but it’s practically defunct by the standards of left activism, not having done anything in public for at least a decade. Nonetheless, it’s held together by a shared worldview and personal ties. More importantly, the Rossites were always like the Füredites in being frankly elitist, viewing themselves as the brains trust of the left. Rather than try to win large numbers of people to their ideas, they concentrated on winning positions of influence. Although it’s to SA’s credit that they tried to win positions of influence in the labour movement, rather than Channel 4 or university sociology departments.

Which leads me to SA’s symbiotic relationship with Ken Livingstone. This has won a lot of coverage lately, with splenetic denunciations from Nick Cohen and Nick’s new best friend Richard Littlejohn, as well as hysterically far-fetched articles in Private Eye alleging that SA were running London and Ken was simply their puppet on a string.

Hardly. It’s more plausible, especially in view of Ken’s well-known political disagreements with SA, to accept Ken’s account, that he employed SA members because they were smart and had a can-do attitude. More to the point, they were willing to work for him after his 2000 election, at a time when Labour Party members could have been expelled for taking jobs with Ken. They were never really much more than the hired help. All the same, the Mayor of London running a job club for a secretive far-left sect didn’t look very good.

Which reminds me of a rather interesting article in the Spectator a few months ago, whereby James Delingpole, the Joe 90 of Tory journalism, came out as a revolutionary communist. No he didn’t, not really. But he had seen ex-RCP cadre Claire Fox on Question Time, agreed with everything she said, and was startled to learn that Claire was supposed to be some kind of Marxist.

Which leads me to Boris Johnson. Some time ago, this blog opined, apropos of the Lee Jasper affair, that Jasper-type figures are a fact of life in big multiracial cities, and Boris would soon enough have a Jasper to call his own. But this story in the latest Weekly Worker took even me aback. Most of the analytical bit is pure WW boilerplate and can be safely ignored, but the news at the front is hot stuff:

Spiked’s coverage of the new mayor has been generally positive. It views him as some kind of libertarian, and enthusiastically urges him to be more openly so (though Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill has criticised his new ban on drinking on public transport). It is similar to Socialist Appeal’s approach to Chávez – you might call it ‘critical fawning’ (the problem for Socialist Appeal is that Chávez is not the future of socialism, and the problem for Spiked is that Johnson is not really a libertarian).

Would it be terribly tactless to mention the Weekly Worker’s own deviations along those lines? Yes it would, so let’s beat on.

The new mayor, in an exciting twist, has repaid the favour, employing regular Spiked contributor Munira Mirza as his cultural advisor. Mirza’s main contribution to the ideological melange of this curious project has been to add to its highly unfavourable attitude to multiculturalism. “Multicultural policies,” she writes on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ blog, “have encouraged ethnic-minority groups to believe they are in need of special recognition … paradoxically, by insisting on engaging with muslims as a separate group, the authorities make many of them feel even more excluded.”

Munira might simply be a ‘fluke’, employed on the basis of her papers for the rightwing think tank, Policy Exchange; but rumours abound that she will not be the last appointee from the Spiked project.

And why not? It’s not as if the Tories are coming down with intellectuals, so why shouldn’t Boris have his own analogue to Socialist Action? So come on, Boris. Why not offer Uncle Frank a job? You know you want to.

Area councillors to sample delights of Windy City

I realise that “councillors go on junket” is hardly news, but the brazenness of sending no less than thirteen Belfast city councillors to live it up in Chicago while studying anti-racist strategies has raised a few eyebrows locally. At least it’s being paid for by the EU, rather than Belfast ratepayers.

There was a bit of a discussion of this on the wireless the other day where a councillor (I believe it was one of the Maskey family, although that doesn’t narrow it down much) was defending the jaunt. Why, he was asked, couldn’t the councillors study racism in somewhere like Bradford or Oldham? (One might also mention religious sectarianism in Glasgow, itself a product of Irish immigration.) Our public representative replied that the English cities were only on the first stage of dealing with racism, while Chicago had tackled the problem successfully. I’m sure Chicagoans would have something to say about that.

Actually, there is an interesting parallel. If racial tensions have decreased within the Chicago city boundaries, it surely has something to do with the incorporation of a layer of black community leaders into the Democratic Party machine, but also rather a lot to do with Chicago’s whites heading for the safely Caucasian ‘burbs and abandoning the city proper to the minorities. You know, the same way Belfast Prods move out to East Belfast, where there’s nothing but Prods as far as the eye can see, or to satellite towns like Ards and Lisburn. It’s much the same in Derry, where a lot of Derry people like to backslap themselves about the lack of sectarianism, which is easy to believe when the Prods are all on the other side of the river.

Of course, this sort of white flight can only ever be a stopgap – just look at the way Lisburn is starting to be affected by West Belfast creep. But it’s an interesting theory for peace studies academics – conflict resolution by gentrification? Maybe we should draft in Sarah Beeny.

Royaume-Uni, nul points

I blame Wogan. On the positive side, though, Goran Bregović in the interval! And what about those Latvian pirates?!

Okay, so the Brits didn’t pull in nul points, with the Emerald Isle and plucky little San Marino saving them from the ignominy of Jahn Teigen territory. All the same, quatorze points and a dead last placing is nothing to write home about. And this brings out the usual moan about political voting.

Not that there’s nothing to that, but the voting was much more bent back in the old days of the jury system, before televoting was brought in. Strangely enough, nobody really seemed to mind the Brits and the Irish voting for each other, or the French and the Belgians, or the Germans and the Austrians. Sure, Terry would take the piss out of the Greeks and the Cypriots, but they didn’t have the clout to influence the outcome. The complaint has reached a much more hysterical pitch now that the eastern countries, still seen by many as lesser Europeans, are there in sufficient numbers to not only influence but determine the outcome.

There are a few factors involved here. One is that the Brits, and increasingly the Irish, regard Eurovision as a big massive joke. I don’t just mean the campy aspect of it, although there’s something to be said for letting Justin Hawkins have a go. No, the thing is that nobody with any aspirations to credibility wants to have anything to do with Eurovision. By contrast, the East Europeans don’t see it as a joke. The likes of the Russians, Estonians and Serbs put up their best artists. The Scandinavians, believe it or not, take it even more seriously, with televised heats going on for weeks on end.

Related to that is the fact that musical tastes within Europe, and individual artists’ popularity, is very much regional. Think about it: if this was all about politics, would punters in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Albania being scoring each other so highly? Or the Baltic states voting for Russia? Or Georgia for Armenia? But if you go into a nightclub in Zagreb, the chances are good that the kids will be dancing to Serbian turbofolk. There’s a certain kind of culturally snobbish Croat that finds this mortifying, but it’s true. And that rather splendid Albanian entry may not tickle the Brits’ fancy, but it’s the kind of thing that sells by the shedload in the Balkans.

This, rather than the paranoid fantasy of a European conspiracy to stitch up Britain, explains Russia’s success. Dima Bilan, remember, is one of Russia’s top-selling singers. It shouldn’t have been surprising that he would prove popular in the former Soviet republics, or in Israel with its enormous Russian population. Nor is it sinister, unless you think Russians are sinister as a point of general principle.

You know, with all the music industry heads in London, you would think somebody would put their minds to producing something that might appeal to Europeans. Or is the culture so thoroughly Americanised that such a thing is unthinkable?

And, at the risk of defacing a national treasure, Wogan is pushing seventy and already has his knighthood. For a very long time he’s had a nice gig going to Eurovision every year, taking the piss out of the foreign hosts, taking the piss out of the foreign acts, and feigning bewilderment at Europeans’ unwillingness to vote for mediocre British entries. It would be sad to see him go out on a sour note, but maybe this is a sign that his retirement would be no catastrophe.

More on this at Cedar Lounge.

No man can stop me!

Consider, if you will, that seminal work “Lost in America” by the great Alice Cooper:

I can’t get a girl cos I ain’t got a car
I can’t get a car cos I ain’t got a job
I can’t get a job cos I ain’t got a car
So I’m lookin’ for a girl with a job and a car

Later on Alice expatiates a bit about how he can’t go to school cos he ain’t got a gun, but you get the drift. The important thing is the method. Alice takes a cold, sober, rational look at his problems and comes up with a realistic solution. And that really is the only way to proceed if you want to get anywhere.

Which brings me to the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party, who really should be taking a cold, sober look at their problems about now, and considering what to do next. It’s been, all things considered, a terrible year for the comrades, topped off by their electoral spanking at the top of the month. One would hope that our scientific Marxists would at least reach the level of rationality set by Alice Cooper.

All right, so from the narrow sectarian viewpoint of building up the SWP’s organisational strength, Respect would have been looking like a bad idea even a year ago. The rationale for it would have been that you have to sacrifice the possibility of recruiting relatively small numbers to the org in the short term, in favour of the possibility of building something bigger and better which will benefit the org big time in the longer term. It’s a compelling argument. But then you look at a situation where a good chunk of the SWP cadre was quietly boycotting Respect, and another good chunk had gone native within Respect, with all that that implies for a loss of cohesion in what used to be a remarkably disciplined group. And that’s before the nuclear button was pressed, and alliances that had taken years to build up were sacrificed on the altar of Rees’ pique.

If I was on the CC, I would be strongly considering the benefits of sending Rees and German on extended gardening leave. It’s probably the case that, were Papa Smurf still alive, Rees would have been busted down to the ranks like shit through a goose. But in the post-Cliff era, even if John and Lindsey are considered irreparably damaged goods in their role as Mr and Mrs Broad Coalition, some face-saving formula will need to be found. The overriding instinct of the CC, honed over many years, is to present a united face in front of the children.

In any case, a breach in CC unity is most unlikely because, well, who would step up to the mark? At this point, more traditionalist Swips will grumble into their beer and hope that the Harmanator will swing into action. They’ve been waiting a long time, and I suspect will go to their graves waiting. As for Lord Callinicos, he’s too busy looking after his super-duper academic career and appearing on The Moral Maze. And even the most hardened cadre might quake at the prospect of a Martin Smith regime. Personally, I’ve never had any problem with Martin, but then I’m not afraid of him.

More to the point will be a discussion about what to do next. Reespect is at the end of the road as a serious venture, although there will, I imagine, be continued electoral interventions on a localised scale. Again, this will be covered by face-saving bluster along “We are the real Respect” lines. But the retreat is unmistakeable. Likewise, although antiwar sentiment still exists on a mass scale, you can’t disguise the fact that STW is in decline. There are few structures or sustained activities for anyone to get involved in, just the big set-piece marches in central London, which themselves are tending to shrink.

There’s been some talk about a turn to industry. This leaves me scratching my head a little, as Britain has little industry left – schoolteachers don’t count – and the organised labour movement is still extremely quiescent. A turn to the unions, perhaps, and that would be a good idea. But it would require targeted long-term work, rather than any expectation that Big Gains will be right around the corner, if only the comrades show sufficient enthusiasm.

What is likely to happen – and there’s evidence of this already – is a big swing towards anti-Nazi activity, particularly with Barnbrook’s election to the GLA. Well worth doing, in principle, although we’ll have to see how it works out in practice. The appeal of this is not only that it gives the comrades something to do in the immediate term, but also because it draws on the SWP’s libertyvalanced version of its own history. According to this, the Swips have unique expertise and authority when it comes to anti-Nazi work. Perhaps more temptingly, the ANL has gone down in this history as the vehicle whereby the SWP built its cadre. This is a bit partial, in that in the mid-70s the IS had a substantial industrial cadre, large layers of whom were expelled by Cliff. It is however true that the ANL was invaluable in building a new, replacement cadre.

More generally, I think we’ll see a general turn back to the colleges and the yoof. There’s been a little of this in Scotland over the past year: since the Scotchie Swips failed to coast into Holyrood on the back of the Tangerine Man’s charisma, they’ve pragmatically (but not formally) turned away from Solidarity and towards their old MO. That means, establishing a regular stream of recruits via SWSS, while recruiting adults in ones and twos from strikes and demos. It’s a familiar approach, and one that will be deeply attractive to disoriented cadre.

There will be pitfalls along the way, of course. For a start, the org is a lot weaker than it was in the nineties. For another, there is stiff competition. No longer are the Yo Brigade the hegemonic force to the left of New Labour. Just to take the colleges, Militant have been growing quite a bit in recent years by recruiting in the colleges, and have done so basically by way of doing the sort of activity the Swips used to do. Having once deprioritised what used to be the major source of warm bodies, it may be difficult for them to reestablish themselves in this ecological niche.

I’m sure, of course, that there will be a lot of chest-beating, pontification about the period, damning of The Traitor Galloway and loud declarations of the membership’s faith in the wisdom of the CC. But the actual choices ahead are limited, and will have to be made on a pragmatic basis.

Brian Keenan (1942-2008)

And so it’s farewell to veteran Belfast republican Brian Keenan, who has died after a struggle with cancer. Brian was 66, which kind of surprised me as he seemed to have been around forever, and which is a sobering thought when much of our political class is of a similar vintage.

In republicanism, as in all movements and organisations, there are people who inspire spontaneous affection and there are people who command respect. It’s been said of Brian, and doubtless will be more in the days to come, that he was widely respected. That’s really a bit of a euphemism – it would be more accurate to say that he was feared. Early on he won a reputation as a hard case, and that’s a reputation that stood him in good stead for many years.

It also stood his organisation in good stead, bearing in mind that Brian’s ferocious loyalty was specifically to the Provisional movement rather than historic republican dogma. In that he was a typical product of West Belfast. Brian’s intrasigence was more a matter of his demeanour than his politics, and that meant he was often read wrongly.

Grizzly, of course, profited from this reputation on more than one occasion, in the same way that in times of trouble the late Joe Cahill would be wheeled out to deliver his “I stood at the foot of the gallows for Ireland” speech, a highlight of many ardfheiseanna. Brian, or a few other people analogous to him, played a similar kind of role in Machiavellian terms. Brian’s endorsement of a new departure would often reassure sceptics. Alternatively, he might set himself up as a sceptic, encouraging others to show their hand, then defecting back to the leadership. And this was helped along no end by a media that always read Brian as a “hardliner”, or even a “Marxist”, when he was hardly ever significantly out of step with the leadership. Given that Brian’s ultimate allegiance was never in any doubt, this is some commentary on those who were taken in on multiple occasions.

Still, Brian chose his path and stuck to it, and always remained a republican by his own lights. Slán.

Stand by the airport workers!

The good news is that Gordon McNeill is out of hospital and back into the fray. This marks the latest development in the saga of the sacked airport workers, a slow-burning dispute that’s sparked into life a few times recently.

The background, very briefly, is this. Way back in 2002 twenty-three workers at Belfast International Airport were sacked for taking part in strike action. They filed a claim with the Industrial Tribunal for unfair dismissal against the employer, ICTS, and further alleged discrimination against four shop stewards on account of their socialist political beliefs. Last year, they won their case and were awarded substantial damages.

The ongoing dispute relates to the workers’ beef with their union, most having belonged to the ATGWU (now part of UNITE). There’s a lot of bad blood dating back to the union’s repudiation of the original strike, and it’s been stoked up further by the union’s performance since. The main thrust of the current dispute is the workers’ demand for the union to pay their legal costs, as well as a promise by Tony Woodley that they would be compensated for mismanagement of the dispute. Hence the barracking of UNITE regional secretary Jimmy Kelly at the Belfast May Day parade, and hence the hunger strike by shop stewards Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer, which is aimed at scandalising the union into moving in the workers’ direction.

It’s a dispiriting story all around. Mismanagement of an industrial dispute by the bureaucracy is, of course, nothing new. What’s even more depressing is Mick O’Reilly and Jimmy Kelly, two of Ireland’s most prominent trade union leftists, behaving in no way differently from the bureaucracy as a whole. (Not to mention Jimmy’s erstwhile comrades, who have somehow managed to avoid any public criticism of the UNITE leadership.) And so the struggle goes on.

Anyway, this is a good cause well worth supporting, and readers should feel free to pass on the word. You can get regular updates at the airport workers’ dedicated blog, and it’s also worth paying a visit to the Socialist Party, whose work around the issue has been exemplary. This in-depth article by the SP’s Peter Hadden gives further details.

As the Dems go into the final dogfight…

And so it’s back to Yankeeland, and the ongoing quest to see which millionaire attorney gets to be the Democrats’ standard-bearer in November. Which, as things stand, looks like being Irish-American candidate Barack O’Bama, who is anxious to emulate the success of fellow Offaly man Brian Cowen.

But isn’t it amazing the easy ride O’Bama has been getting in the media? Contrast this with, for example, the extraordinary level of misogyny implicit in much of the coverage of Hillary Clinton. Now I don’t especially like Hillary – I don’t have much time for her at all – but even I am surprised by the tenor of many of the debates.

Anchor: Senator Clinton, why does everyone hate you?
Clinton: You know, Jim, that hurts my feelings. And I’d really rather talk about policy.
Anchor: Thank you for that hysterical female response. Senator O’Bama, are you sure you’re comfortable? Would you like another cushion?
O’Bama: When the roots are strong, there will be growth.

I think I’m uncomfortable with the worship of O’Bama because it reminds me so much of the cult of Blair back in the day, and the current feting of Rankin’ Dave Cameron. There’s the neophiliac element in that Clinton is seen to represent old Washington, while O’Bama is new new new! Also, O’Bama has only been in DC four years, unlike, say, John Kerry, who has been in the Senate for decades and has left behind him all sorts of hostages to fortune. This means O’Bama can take on the qualities of a blank slate, and people can project their hopes onto him, on the flimsiest of grounds. Not least because of his habit of speaking in vacuous Bonoisms.

It’s true, of course, that Clinton personifies the old Democratic establishment. But it’s a major error to conclude from that that O’Bama is an outsider leading an insurgency against the establishment. In the same way, O’Bama supporters cite the war and racism as their main concerns. Yet O’Bama has been spotty on the war – his big idea seems to be getting troops out of Iraq and sending them into Afghanistan, and possibly Iran – while he’s said as little on race as he can get away with.

It helps, of course, that O’Bama’s family background – that part of it that isn’t Irish – is not African-American but African. Our friend doesn’t have a ghetto background, and the accompanying anger that tends to scare suburban whites. He isn’t entitled to forty acres and a mule. His general demeanour, apart from the odd Dr King rhetorical flourish, doesn’t partake much of classical American negritude. It isn’t as if Democrats in Vermont or Oregon were voting for Mr T.

But there’s a point that was made very well by WorldbyStorm a little while back, apropos of the West Virginia primary, when the hillbillies conspicuously failed to fall for our friend’s charm. Which is that, while O’Bama has an admirable ability to appeal to the black electorate, and he’s energised a constituency of well-heeled trendies, he continues to have a problem dealing with the white working class. I’m not sure that this can be simply put down to racism, although racism there surely is. What hurts the candidate more, in places like Pennsylvania or West Virginia, is the impression that he feels contempt for this layer. Sounding off about bitter folks clinging to guns and God doesn’t help, and that will surely come back to haunt him in November.

It certainly doesn’t help that the people who O’Bama seems to be failing to connect with are the portion of the Dems’ base most likely to switch to a Republican candidate, especially one with a gift for folksy populism, while the black community will vote Democrat no matter what. The latest spin is that O’Bama’s standing with the proletariat will be boosted by the endorsement of millionaire attorney John Edwards. Hmm…

Again, this isn’t to say there isn’t an issue of racial bias. One of the things that struck me from Mitt Romney’s run at the Republican nomination was the polling that suggested 30% or thereabouts of the American electorate would refuse to vote for a Mormon candidate. Back in the 1960s, there would have been similar numbers refusing to vote for a Catholic or Jewish candidate. Just because people are savvy enough not to own up to being prejudiced, that doesn’t mean they aren’t.

And, of course, there is only one winner in this situation. I suspect that O’Bama is actually less electable than Clinton, but either one of them will have a hard time getting past McCain. Remember, too, that a mere couple of months back, a parrot on a stick could have beaten McCain. Yet again, it really does beggar belief how useless the Democrats are.

Fuzzy math in Serbia

One thing that’s noticeable about post-Soviet Eastern Europe is the reassertion of familiar political patterns, although often in new and surprising ways. You see a lot of this in the Western Balkans. Slovenia, for instance, looks more and more eerily like a southern Austrian province, albeit an Austrian province with its own flag and president, a seat at the UN and even a rinky dinky little army that gets allowed to go on Nato exercises once in a while. Croatia’s body politic was traditionally dominated by fanatical loyalty to the Catholic Church and the Habsburg family and, while the Habsburg connection has faded quite a bit, there’s a lot that’s recognisable from the past. Bosnia has reverted to being a foreign protectorate; Montenegro has reverted to being basically a pirate republic.

Where this is relevant is that, historically speaking, one of the basic cleavages of Serbian politics has been between pro-French and pro-Russian tendencies. When you remember this, it casts a bit of light on what’s conventionally portrayed in the metropolitan media as the struggle between “pro-Western reformers” on the one hand and “ultra-nationalists” on the other. And actually, if anyone in Serbia has a claim to being a pro-European democrat, it’s Vojislav Koštunica, arguably the most prominent intellectual Francophile in the country, as well as being the man who translated the Federalist Papers into Serbian way back in 1982, when many of today’s most ostentatious “democrats” were cosily ensconced in the Stalinist bureaucracy. If Koštunica is sufficiently pissed off with the EU to be throwing pro-Russian shapes, it says less about him than it does about EU diplomacy. Kosovo is only the most egregious example of this. We also have Brussels’ refusal to make a harmless goodwill gesture like relaxing visa restrictions. Not to mention Javier Solana playing silly buggers with accession talks, dangling association agreements before the Serbian voters when there’s an election coming up and then junking them afterwards, while hoping that the simple peasants won’t notice. Way to go, EU diplomacy!

So, what are we to make of Boris Tadić’s famous victory? Well, it’s not quite as clear-cut as Boris and his spin-meisters would have us believe. Yes, Boris has done rather well. Partly that’s due to rallying voters who were scared of the Radicals getting into power. And partly it’s because, while Boris’ Democratic Party ran alone last year, this time out it was the main force in a broad coalition. Well, I say a broad coalition – there are some fairly motley partners in there, basically anyone who could add a few votes to the total. Most notable is Mladjan Dinkić’s G17 Plus, the expert technocrats (or gang of crooks, depending on your perspective) who have had a stranglehold on the economic ministries since the October 2000 coup, and probably reckoned they were unelectable under their own name. There’s also the Vojvodina’s rightist hard man Nenad Čanak, and we are delighted to see Vuk Drašković being exhumed from his political grave. Boris’ coalition also includes the Srpska Lista za Kosovo i Metohiju, a smallish but significant outfit which returns a number of abstentionist deputies to the province’s puppet assembly, and that can’t have hurt his patriotic credentials.

But all this leaves Boris’ fractious alliance, even assuming he can hold it together, with 102 seats out of 250 in parliament, and getting the extra 24 to elect a prime minister will be no mean feat. Boris can probably rely on the Liberal Democratic Party, who are neither liberal nor democratic – they’re a bit like our own Desocrats, only considerably nastier. The LDP has consolidated its base among Belgrade’s trendy postmodern metrosexuals, which isn’t a big niche but is solid enough to deliver them 13 deputies. And then there are seven representatives of national minorities, of whom the Magyars and Albanians could be counted on to support Boris, and the Sandžak Muslims will vote for whoever looks most likely to deliver monetary returns to the Sandžak. But that still leaves Boris short.

In this situation, what’s a Balkan president to do? He might put in a call to Koštunica, although relations between the two men are extremely bad at the moment. Old Vojislav did badly in the election, but still has kingmaker potential. Worth noting, too, that the Radicals (who put on 40,000 votes but dropped three seats due to the vagaries of PR) have also been courting Koštunica, even unto the point of offering him the premiership. The Radicals will be well aware that Koštunica’s solid reputation as a conservative patriot, and one of the few people in Serbian politics who’s totally incorruptible, would do wonders for their own hoodlum image.

And so it’s likely to be crunch time for the Socialists, who did quite well. A lot of people assume the Socialists to be natural coalition partners for the Radicals, but perhaps not. The two parties have had a prickly relationship since the days when Milošević and Šešelj used to square off against each other, drawing not least on their respective identifications with the Titoist and monarchist traditions. More to the point, the Socialists and Radicals pitch their appeal to the same kind of electorate. Ask yourself why the PDs have never coalesced with Fine Gael, and you’ll get my point.

But could the Socialists enter a Tadić government? There’s already been some spin to that effect. The Democrats, despite their lack of any leftist policies, call themselves a centre-left party and are actually an affiliate of the Socialist International. (Which just goes to show that the Second will let anybody in these days.) The Socialists, on the other hand, are keen to big up their social democratic credentials. But what are the odds of any social democratic policies while the G17 Plus continue to control the economy, as they surely will in any Tadić government? And how could Boris, who derives a lot of his moral authority from having been part of the anti-Milošević opposition back in the day, justify going into government with the party of Milošević? Bizarre coalitions are commonplace in countries with PR systems – on the Emerald Isle we have two of them – but in most countries elections are not cast as grand existential struggles between good and evil.

Interesting times ahead. And watch out for the diplomatic SWAT teams being deployed from Brussels and Washington to fix things for Boris. What the Eurocrats fear isn’t so much a return to the 1990s (as if they bore no responsibility for that) but that a Radical-led government might make it more difficult to project Imperial power, by exposing the misdeeds of the Empire’s favoured parties while making life harder for the lavishly funded neocon fronts that proliferate in Belgrade’s NGO sector. I guess, in the end, it all comes down to how power-hungry Tadić is and how slippery the Socialists are. Don’t underestimate either.

The Warren hypothesis revisited

The early Marx has tended to get a good press over recent decades, especially from people who want to draw a sharp distinction between the early Marx (good) and the later Marx (bad). Me, I prefer the very late Marx, especially his stuff on Russia. Oddly enough, this is one of the bits of Marx that official communism has been least keen on. At some point in the 1930s, Soviet theoreticians excised the idea of the Asiatic mode of production from the officially codified Marxism-Leninism, presumably on the grounds that the old man’s description of Asiatic despotism was a bit too close to Uncle Joe’s regime for comfort.

This is actually, believe it or not, still a live issue in China and Vietnam. To this day, the Chinese Communist Party holds occasional conferences aimed at denying that there is any such thing as the Asiatic mode of production. Draw your own conclusions.

Which leads me, in a slightly roundabout way, to Bill Warren’s pathbreaking Imperialism, Pioneer of Capitalism. I’m not going to get into an extended review of the Warren thesis – if you like, you can read a review here. But there are a few interesting points worth flagging up.

What Warren does, and I know I’m grossly simplifying here, is to stress the role of imperialism in spreading capitalism around the globe – as an essentially modernising force, which replaces the backward peasant economy with a more advanced system, but also creates, in the proletariat, its own gravedigger. Marx’s writings on British rule in India are taken as a key reference point here. It’s like an early example of globalisation theory, only argued in Marxist categories.

Some superficial thinkers have taken Warren’s book to be a full-frontal attack on the Leninist concept of imperialism – whether they take that to be positive or negative is another matter entirely. But I’m not sure that’s the case. On the pure economics, although Warren takes issue with Lenin on some points, the two aren’t all that far apart. But Lenin’s critique of imperialism was essentially a political one, and Warren doesn’t really provide a plausible counterblast. What he’s having a go at is nationalist strategies of economic development, and a slightly romantic anti-imperialism that paints a rosy picture of pre-capitalist societies. Neither one has very much to do with Leninism.

Readers of a certain vintage and a certain political background will perhaps have noticed a parallel with The Irish Industrial Revolution. I’m not quite certain about whether and to what extent Warren influenced the thinking of the Workers Party, and I’d certainly be interested to hear more on the subject, but there’s some circumstantial evidence to suggest that there was an influence. While Warren’s book was published posthumously in 1980, the guts of it had been in circulation for quite some years previously. No later than 1976, if memory serves, Henry Patterson was dead chuffed with the Warren hypothesis and was handing out the great man’s writings in pamphlet form. That would also coincide with the Officials’ move away from the CPI perspective of national development behind protectionist barriers, which had come to smack too much of Provonomics.

As time has passed, I’ve come to be more and more sympathetic to the WP theory of the lazy Irish bourgeoisie, and I think the Celtic Tiger proves the point – the Irish state developed because, and only because, of a massive upsurge in inward investment. But things haven’t actually turned out the way the Warren hypothesis, or the WP’s politics, might have suggested. A socialist government, or even a radical bourgeois government like the early de Valera administrations, would have made some efforts to industrialise the country. In fact, the Tiger has capitalised Ireland without industrialising it. Development has come via trade, financial services and generally being a scab on Europe.

And so it is that, at the end of a boom of unprecedented scale and duration, the Irish industrial base could hardly be said to be stronger than it was at the beginning. Arguably it’s actually weaker. It’s a funny old world, all right.

« Older entries