Friday, May 30, 2014

The Legacy of Hugo Chavez

HUGO CHAVEZ died on 5 March 2013, and two events took place recently in London to mark the first anniversary of his passing. Canning House organized a half-day conference aimed at assessing the Chavez legacy, while the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (VSC) set itself the task of celebrating the Bolivarian Revolution that Chavez led and that his elected successor, Nicolás Maduro, seeks to continue.
Headquartered in London’s exclusive Belgravia, Canning House exists to “foster mutual understanding and engagement between the UK and the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian world”. Membership is open to all, but at heart it has always been a conservative organization, run by men and women in smart attire, well-intentioned but of anodyne views, and perhaps a little over fond of rubbing shoulders with senior executives of big companies, ministers of state and people with seats in the Upper House. A patrician stiffness pervades Canning House, a lingering vestige of empire discernible in the crusty tones with which the old guard greet each other at gatherings and peer over the shoulders of anyone they don’t recognize. If they speak Spanish or Portuguese, most do so in a resolutely British accent with no concession to native rhythms or inflections.
Nevertheless, Canning House continues to be a useful locus of engagement with the Latin-American world, not least because it manages to secure excellent speakers from all the countries as well as from the UK for its lectures and round tables, and is generally careful to maintain political neutrality in its choice of contributors and subject matter. Such was the case with the Conference on Hugo Chavez.
Venezuela’s charismatic leader was and remains controversial, and to reflect this Canning House invited a roster of participants from all sides of the political spectrum. Notable among the “Chavistas” were London’s former mayor, Ken Livingstone, who had tried to develop a long-term relationship between Caracas and London (subsequently terminated by Boris Johnson) and, more convincing because she is clearly more knowledgeable, Alicia Castro, Argentina’s current ambassador to the UK and former ambassador to Venezuela. These two could be described as representing the progressive left. In the political centre were several speakers who did their best to be informative rather than polemical. Representing the far right were two Venezuelan die-hard anti-Chavistas: an economist called Pedro Palma who appeared to enjoy telling the audience that his country is on the brink of financial ruin, and Diego Arria, a politician who by his stiff mannerisms, elegant diction, and impeccable attire manifested his membership of the economic and social elite. Latin Americans and those who know the continent will be familiar with the type.
The presence on the same stage of ideological adversaries who, in deference to the setting, were obliged to maintain a semblance of politeness towards each other, made the event both fascinating and informative; though given the strength of opposing views, I doubt whether anyone was persuaded to change the opinion they held on entering the hall.
It is difficult, maybe impossible, for anyone with knowledge of Latin America not to find themselves on one side or other of the Chavez debate. I found Palma’s and Arria’s assertions unconvincing and their opinions too extreme to merit serious consideration. Many of those who attended, however, clearly thought the opposite - among them a coterie of young Venezuelans, in London perhaps to study or at leisure, who made their views known with rounds of applause and the occasional hiss; privileged youngsters, like those in Caracas and other cities who have made a splash by setting up road blocks, burning tyres and throwing Molotov cocktails.
What of the VSC conference? Here there was no question of neutrality. One of organization’s aims is to “defend the achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution”. Unsurprisingly, no one was invited to speak on behalf of the opposition.
The day-long affair included plenary sessions and workshops dealing both with the internal politics of Venezuela and with the influence of the Chavez revolution on Latin America and further afield.
Ambassador Castro was the only speaker to appear at both events. Her address resembled the one she gave for Canning House, though in form it was more relaxed and overtly chavista. She ended with the traditional clenched fist salute symbolic in Latin America of solidarity with the people. Alicia Castro is a stalwart defender of Latin-American independence and of the kind of progressive governments that currently hold power not just in Venezuela and, of course, in her own country, but in Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and maybe even Cuba, that favorite bogey of successive US administrations and of the western right-wing media. Other speakers included Dr Francsico Dominguez, general secretary of the VSC, Mark Weisbrot from the US-based Centre for Economic and Political Research (CEPR), Seamus Milne of The Guardian, Neil Findlay a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament, representatives of several Latin-American embassies, notable academics, journalists, and leaders of pressure groups. Moving accounts were given of the continent-wide struggle for emancipation of the poor and of native peoples; and there were pleas for an end to US interference in the internal affairs of the region.
This last theme loomed large. Throughout the day, the immense spectre of the United States cast a shadow over all the discussions. Since the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, there have been over 170 US interventions in Latin America from an attack by US marines on Puerto Rico in 1824 to the US-backed overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Among the most salient interventions are the 1847 annexation of half of Mexico, the prising of Panama from Colombia in 1903 in preparation for US occupation of the Canal Zone, the shelling of the Mexican port of Veracruz in 1914, the overthrow of the Haitian government in 1915 and occupation of the country until 1925, the conversion of Cuba into a US protectorate under the so-called Platt Amendment in 1901, occupation of the Dominican Republic and installation of a puppet regime in 1916, incessant interference in Nicaragua from the mid 1920s onwards which included in 1937 installation of one of Latin-America’s vilest dictatorships under Anastasio Somoza, forced concession of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and support for the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista which lasted from 1934 until the Revolution ousted him in 1959.
More recent occurrences include the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala (1954), of President Joao Goulart of Brazil (1964), of President Arturo Umberto Illia of Argentina (1966), of President Salvador Allende of Chile (1973), of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and again in 2004, and two celebrated failures: the invasion of Cuba in 1961, and the coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002.
As Francisco Dominguez pointed out in his address, in recent years direct military intervention by the US in Latin America has fallen out of favour as a method of control. Washington now prefers to finance US-friendly opposition groups and to institute sanctions against regimes it doesn’t like. Venezuela is currently a target of both tactics.
Two quite different views of the world are struggling for primacy in post-Chavez Venezuela. In the anti-Chavista camp are those who believe privilege and inequality to be products of nature or decrees of God. They are happy with neo-liberalism, with minimal state interference in the market, with US hemispheric hegemony which they see as a bulwark against the evils of socialism, and with a concept of personal freedom that allows them to do more or less whatever they wish. They believe in democracy provided it doesn’t undermine their interests.
Chavistas by contrast think a more equal, kinder world is possible, one in which human solidarity, the sharing of resources, and an end to extremes of poverty and inequality can and should constitute the moral basis of political and social policy. For the poor and the lower middle classes, marginalized for centuries in a deeply unequal society, Chavez represented a beacon of hope not that the proletariat and peasantry would take over the state in some utopian version of Marxism-Leninism, but that the Bolivarian Revolution would launch a social transformation sufficient to ensure that every family in Venezuela would have the means to lead a dignified life. Simple and revolutionary; too much so for the opposition which, after failing to overthrow Chavez in 2002, is trying again with his successor.
Nicolas Maduro won the hotly contested 2013 presidential election by a tiny margin of 1.5%., a result that unleashed a torrent of accusations of fraud from the United States as well as from the Venezuelan opposition. No such complaint came from the US when Felipe Calderón won the Mexican election in 2006 by an even smaller margin (0.58%) and in circumstances strongly suggesting that the real winner had been the left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Nor have we heard much about the Venezuelan municipal elections that took place in December 2013 in which Maduro’s Party, the PSUV[1], received a substantially increased share of the vote. Judgements in the US about whether a Latin-American election is valid depend entirely on the political position of the candidates. We should be in no doubt about this. US administrations - whether Democrat or Republican - have never shown themselves willing to accept governments in Latin America that the State Department considers to be overly left wing or inimical to US interests. Chavez was elected and re-elected with large majorities. In the US he was nevertheless commonly referred to as a dictator.
A program of opposition protests against President Maduro began as soon as he took office. Its stated objective is “La Salida” (the exit): the ejection of Maduro from power not by means of the ballot box but via streets protests, attacks on government offices, economic sabotage, disruption of daily life, and attempts to marshal international support for regime change.”Our aim”, affirms Leopoldo López, former mayor of Chacao, the wealthiest municipality of Caracas “is to get rid of the government”. Another protest leader , Roberto Alonso, explains that ”…the sole aim of the guarimba (street protests, barricades etc.), apart from paralyzing the country, is to create chaos….so as to oblige the Castro-communist regime of Venezuela to implement the Plan Ávila[2].” This would inevitably lead to the end of the Maduro government.
These efforts at disruption - enthusiastically adopted by students dissidents - are portrayed by western media and opposition supporters as a peaceful campaign to restore democracy in the teeth of a repressive dictatorship. Such was the account given to the Canning House audience by Diego Arria who numbers amongst his many achievements that of having graduated from the Augusta Military Academy at Fort Defiance, Virginia. In a self-serving biography (La Hora de la Verdad - the Hour of Truth), Arria describes Chavez as “the costliest sick man in human history”. Venezuela, he tells us, “is under Cuban occupation and the Venezuelan government and army have handed over national sovereignty to the communists.”
María Corina Machado, recently ejected from the Venezuelan Congress for accepting a role as a Panamanian official so as to be able to speak against her own government at a meeting of the Organisation of American States, is another right-winger given red-carpet treatment in Washington for her heroic efforts to return democracy to Venezuela. She was one of the elite figures who signed the Carmona Decree of 2002 affirming the overthrow of Hugo Chavez and the installation of a replacement government. According to Machado, the student protests which have received so much publicity are peaceful and the violence that has resulted in several deaths are entirely the responsibility of the government. This too is the version offered by Enrique Krauze, the influential Mexican rent-a-reactionary, who in a New York Times piece of February 27, describes how the country’s youth are fighting for democracy against the brutal repression of an oil-rich state. In the same newspaper on the previous day, Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, told readers that “…the majority of those protesting are Venezuela’s poor..”, a claim contradicted by all the available evidence, including the eye-witness reports given at the VSC conference by Mark Weisbrot, Seamus Milne and Neil Findlay. Halvorssen, despite his name, is Venezuelan and a cousin of Leopoldo López. We are in the territory of the super-rich Venezuelan aristocracy.
According to Weisbrot, who has walked the streets, the protests are not coming from the poor who have largely benefited from the Bolivarian Revolution, but from the rich; the barricades are not in underprivileged neighbourhoods, but in the exclusive ones where small groups “engage in nightly battles with security forces, throwing rocks and firebombs and running from tear gas.”
Nevertheless, true to form, US Secretary of State John Kerry has taken up the cudgels on behalf of the downtrodden elite, criticising the Venezuelan government for inhibiting the right of cities to protest peacefully and accusing Maduro of unleashing a campaign of terror against his own people. Not to be outdone, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has just passed a bill proposing sanctions against the Venezuelan authorities and support for the Opposition.
Doubtless all this is music to the ears of the right, Corina Machado foremost among them, who have trooped off to Washington to persuade US public opinion and Congress to “support” the opposition in her country “for the sake of democracy”. Latin America’s whole history demonstrates the danger of such overtures. Yet one of the region’s many ironies is that ever since gaining independence from Spain, it has produced a steady supply of fifth columnists ready to trade that independence in exchange for a US-backed regime that will defend their interests. Apart from the litany of tired accusations about the repressive nature of the current government, three complaints about Venezuela have gained traction internationally: endemic violence, corruption in public life, and media repression.
Criminal violence is a problem confronting several Latin-American countries though in each it takes slightly different forms. Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Brazil and Venezuela all suffer from high levels of homicide - much of it perpetrated by organized gangs. There is no avoiding the crime figures, which are a terrible stain on the region, nor the fact that governments of every stripe have consistently failed to find a solution. This is not an ideological issue but one of long-term social and economic failure arising above all from the marginalization of large sectors of the population that have no stake in the status quo. For many, it is easier to make a living from theft, smuggling, kidnapping and murder than from conventional employment.
Accusations that Venezuela no longer has a free press are greedily seized upon by conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. A storm of protest erupted, for example, at the sale of the anti-government TV station Globovision - which in 2003 had publicly called for the overthrow of President Chavez. One can imagine what would have happened if CNN or Fox News had advocated a coup against Obama. However, Globovision with less than 5% of the national audience is a tiny player. About 90% of media consumption is supplied by the private sector, which is one reason why no one has to search or go under cover to see or hear criticism of the government.
What about official corruption? Undeniably it exists, much of it arising out of price controls and market subsidies. Venezuela’s gasoline (petrol) prices are the cheapest on the planet, the result of a subsidy so extravagant that, according to a study by two Venezuelan scholars at Harvard University, its value exceeds that of all social programs combined. Cheap gasoline means, amongst other things, that large amounts of fuel are smuggled into Brazil and Colombia across borders patrolled by the Venezuelan military but apparently highly porous, giving rise to the suspicion that much of the illegal trade takes place under the auspices of the army. Likewise, many basic products imported into Venezuela for sale at regulated prices are smuggled into Colombia at a profit. According to a brilliant article by Angel Ricardo Martinez in Foreign Policy, up to 40 percent of all Venezuelan imports find their way to Colombia, destabilizing the latter’s internal markets, and creating critical shortages in Venezuela.
Although the gasoline subsidy and the associated smuggling operations are highly damaging, not even Chavez seems to have been strong enough to confront the army about its role in these lucrative activities. The late president did not, however, create the problem. As Martinez points out , “….the gas subsidy has been in place for several decades, with its current price fixed since 1996, three years before Chavez came to power.”
If drugs are the curse of Colombia and Mexico, oil is Venezuela’s curse; and it will be a very courageous government that tries to deal with the gasoline subsidy without an accommodation with the armed forces and strong support from neighbouring countries.
Venezuela’s problems are multiple, difficult to describe in terms that do justice to their complexity, and even more difficult to resolve.
Independently of the long-term issues, however, the present juncture is critical not only for Venezuela’s immediate future but for that of Latin America as a whole. A US-backed triumph for the inhabitants of Altamira, for Leopoldo López, Diego Arria, Corina Machado and their followers, for the rich kids protesting in the streets, will plunge the country back into a subservient relationship with the United States, encouraging the latter to reassert the Monroe Doctrine and convincing the US and European public that, after all, Latin-Americans are incapable of building lasting democracies based on the rule of law. If the democratically elected government of Venezuela is not safe, then neither are the progressive governments of other nations in the region. US eyes will be especially focused thereafter on Bolivia, on Ecuador, and even on the governments of larger nations that fail to toe the line.
This is not a scenario that anyone should find palatable.

[1] United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
[2] A contingency plan to use the army to maintain public order - employed in 1989 by President Carlos Andrés Pérez with disastrous consequences.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Private Finance Initiative (PFI)

This little essay is sourced from a book I wrote a few years ago.

A speculative fantasy dreamed up by some British economists in the late twentieth century and elevated to a policy by a succession of right-wing governments.

PFI aims to relieve the state of many of its public service obligations by transferring responsibility for delivering and maintaining them to the private sector. Under PFI public buildings are built with private funds, social care provision for the elderly is delegated to corporations, private clinics replace state hospitals, management firms take over the running of “failing” schools” while successful ones are encouraged to sell off their playing fields before being demolished to make way for private academies. Little by little, government withdraws from its traditional role - indeed from the role for which it was elected. Instead it becomes an intermediary between the people and the private sector - receiving petitions from the former and contracting the latter to resolve them. In a curious reversal of classical economic theory, the state thereby emerges as the largest single source of business profits, and an efficient recycler of funds from taxpayers to the pockets of company directors and shareholders.

Politicians justify PFI on the grounds that because companies are stiffened by market discipline they can build and operate public facilities more cost-effectively than government. Regrettably, no element of this mantra stands up to the mildest scrutiny.

First, most governments can raise capital more cheaply than companies because they tend to have higher credit ratings and at least some control over domestic interest rates. More important, debt is usually less expensive than equity[1]. What this means is that the private sector pays more for its money than the state and will charge the cost back to the taxpayer.

Second, no evidence exists that companies have a genetic capacity to run public services more efficiently than governments. The supposed superior efficiency of the private sector is a favoured fantasy of business executives looking to secure government contracts because they find it peculiarly easy to drill into the mush that passes for the brains of incompetent politicians.

A useful corrective might be to recall from time to time a few items of our collective history that votaries of neo-liberalism are inclined to overlook. Universal access to health and education services, construction and maintenance of most of the world’s road and rail networks, the BBC, the CBC, MOMA[2], Sydney’s Opera House, the Louvre, the Library of Congress, police and fire services, pensions for retirees[3], sewerage and water supplies, the allied victory over Hitler and fascism, the US and Russian space programs, and parliamentary democracy, figure among the numberless initiatives and successes of the now derided public sector - the sector that citizens are told works badly on the infrequent occasions when it works at all.

In a competitive world, companies have to be efficient in order to survive. Those that fail either go under or pass into the hands of their competitors. Public services can’t be allowed to go under, however, because without them neither we nor the country in which we live could keep going. Instead, whenever the companies that run them get into trouble, the State bails them out, rewarding their inefficiencies with subsidies, allowing them to hike prices on a nod and a wink, and turning a blind eye to the inflated salaries of their executives. In place of market discipline, we get sequential rip-offs under government licence while they - the companies - get increasing profits for diminishing levels of service.

[1] Although companies usually borrow funds to finance a project, they still pay dividends on the profits, bonuses to their executives, and interest on the the debt. Dividends are more expensive because they are paid after tax, whereas debt is tax deductible. But, of course, governments don't pay tax or dividends to shareholders.

[2] New York Museum of Modern Art

[3] We have Napoleon to thank for this one.

Parting as friends...?

Some nationalist comments on Scottish independence come laced with a good dose of venom directed not just against Westminster but against the English who have been variously described as, torpid, bovine, smug, complacent, nasty (add your own epithet) toffs. Plenty more examples have appeared recently in the media, so I won’t trouble the reader with additional references. These barbs - largely from Scottish nationalists - seem to me like the painful cries of an anxious lover, for they come accompanied by entreaties more often than not for the English to listen to what the Scots are saying. They are in other words, calls for attention, for evidence that the English care about keeping the union together.
We can, I think, dismiss the possibility that nationalists want the rUK Brits to persuade them not to leave. More likely their aim, perhaps subconscious, is to draw expressions of affection from the English (in particular) as a prolegomenon to inflicting on them the maximum of discomfort - hurt feelings - when, as they hope, Scotland chooses to go its own way. In short, they want the separation to matter to the abandoned partner. Anyone who has been involved in a conflictive divorce will be familiar with the complex emotions at work.
One or two recent polls suggest that at least as many English as Scots want the separation to take place. A much larger proportion of English, however, appear not to care. My own casual inquiries over the last year - mainly though not exclusively - in London and the South West (notably Devon and Cornwall where I work) have yielded very little beyond a sense that Scottish independence appears to be a very long way down anyone’s list of priorities. The most widespread opinion I have heard voiced - and this only after I had insisted on hearing one - is that “ won’t make any difference…”
It would be easy - and false - to dismiss this response as evidence that the English deserve to be speared for their intellectual laziness and smugness. For behind this apparent indifference to Scotland lies a much more profound aspect of the character of the English which I would summarise as an unthinking confidence in their own identity.
Robertson Davies, the great Canadian writer, was once quoted as saying that to understand the English you needed to know that they don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of them. Like most exaggerations this one harbours a kernel of truth. Rarely outside the confines of a football stadium (and adjacent pubs) do the English proclaim their national identity. The barmy army, whose members seem to have enough cash and leisure to follow the England cricket team round the world, acquired its name because, to most of their compatriots they are - literally - barmy. Often against the evidence, the English (drunks excepted) naturally assume that they are on good terms with everyone. Moreover, they seldom if ever compare themselves with other nations, not because they think themselves superior, but because they do not consider that the qualities of other nations diminish them. This is notably true of the “home” countries. If England gets knocked out of the World rugby cup, the English will cheer Wales, or Scotland, or Ireland. They can be horribly chastened by the kind of ashes thrashing recently administered by the Australian cricket team; but they will think no less of the Australians for the beating. They treat it as a game and to a large extent treat life itself in much the same way. They are genuinely perplexed by the ABE (Anybody but England) t-shirts enthusiastically sold in Scotland on international sporting occasions; but, despite the occasional efforts of the tabloid press to whip up a furious reaction south of the border, they are only too happy to ignore the intended slight, and to cheer Andy Murray, Chris Hoy and other Scottish champions as their own.
Contempt and distrust are not alien to the English temper but they tend to direct such sentiments not at the people of other nations, but at faceless bureaucrats and city bankers, and especially at politicians. They know that the country has been grotesquely ill-served by successive governments; they are only too conscious of the litany of ills so forcefully described in Robin McAlpine’s recent piece for Open Democracy; the majority who live outside the self-indulgent, myopic bubble of Westminster and Canary Wharf feel both utterly marginalised and, ever since the New Labour betrayal, bereft of political choice. Many are furious about the damage inflicted on the social fabric of this country by neoliberalism and its acolytes, among whom are numbered all the political leaders who have been in charge since Thatcher. But anger and indignation are expressions of love; and they can be and one day surely will be catalysts for action and change. England has been through such periods before - as anyone will know who has studied earlier periods of our history. Disaffection with the status quo, however, is not the same as self-doubt. The English - and I include all those who were born in England or live there by right of citizenship - do not define their identity with reference to their neighbours. In fact they rarely bother to define themselves at all; they take what they are as a given. My sense - a purely personal view - is that they feel generally closer to the Welsh than to the Scots (in literary terms closer to Dylan Thomas than to Robert Burns) and are rather mystified by the tribal hostilities in Northern Ireland; but they are entirely comfortable with the larger identity of Britishness which I believe they view as a kind of brother/sisterhood
From whence does this English self-confidence arise? Part undoubtedly stems from territorial integrity, the long history - almost a thousand years - of borders that no foreign army has crossed except by invitation. No one has better expressed the English sense of geographical security than Shakespeare when he wrote the famous “sceptred isle” speech for John of Gaunt:
“This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands.”

Though in the same speech old John rails against the corruption of politicians in their willingness to sell out the country in return for power:
”…this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out…
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:”

It could have been written yesterday.
Another portion of self-confidence without doubt arises from the depth and richness of the culture: in literature from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing; in painting from the Wilton Diptych to Constable, Turner, Bacon and Lucien Freud; In so-called classical music from Tallis and Purcell to Walton, Vaughan Williams, Britten; in popular music, from Dowland to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie…..In science from Newton to Stephen Hawking and Peter Higgs (of boson fame), in technology and engineering from Brunel, to Frank Whittle (turbo jet engine), Charles Babbage….Alan Turing (computers), Clive Sinclair (electronic pocket calculator), Tim Berners-Lee (WWW) etc. etc. These are mere examples drawn from a seemingly endless list of contributors not just to the nation but to the world. For whatever reasons - good and bad - English has become the lingua franca of international discourse and the most widely spoken and taught on the planet.
In short, England’s cultural bags are heavy with achievement, and though most of us have had no part in filling them, we carry them subconsciously in the language we speak and the way we think.
David Bowie is currently under attack in cyberspace for having politely asked the Scots to “stay” in the Union, a backlash that would seem to reflect more on the attackers than on their target. Snarling at those with whom you disagree in an attempt to silence them has about it a sulphurous whiff. It reminds me of a personal experience that occurred during the lead-up to the Quebec independence referendum in 1995. I found myself sharing a meal with a group of writers and intellectuals in a Toronto restaurant. Several Quebecers were present, one of whom sat next to me, a young university professor. Inevitably the subject of conversation turned to Quebec and someone made a disobliging remark about the people of anglophone Canada. I said softly, in reply, that the opinion just expressed was not very charitable. The professor turned to me, eyes blazing.
“You can stuff your effing charity up your arse.” I recall this incident as way of suggesting that there is no need to be nasty. Regardless of what the largely right-wing London-centric press may claim, the English people will not think less of the Scots for separating. If independence induces the Scottish people to cease blaming their discontents on the English there will likely be polite applause from south of the border.
What the Scots should not expect is lamentation for their departure. Politicians and their friends in the media may bleat for a while but they’ll soon get used to the new dispensation, which will, of course, include Scottish entry into the EU as an independent nation. If Scots do vote for independence, the English will wish them well and hope that they too will gain sufficient confidence in their identity that they no longer feel a need to proclaim it or to compare themselves with others.
As Gandhi is said to have remarked as India moved towards independence from Great Britain, “we have come a long way together; so we must part as friends.”

This article was first published in Open Democracy.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Art as Politics

Anyone who has visited the Royal Academy’s Daumier exhibition Visions of Paris expecting to see views of fine buildings and picturesque plazas will have been sorely disappointed. The title is misleading because the focus of Daumier’s penetrating gaze was not urban landscape but people, and the social and political milieu of his time. Paris barely appears at all. Instead, what arrests the attention from the very first works on display is the force of the artist’s political commitment: on one hand his mockery of the rich and powerful, at its best in the caricature of King Louis-Philippe as Gargantua and his grotesque maquettes of monarchist politicians; and on the other his sensitive depictions of the poor and working classes. Daumier was an uncompromising republican, a quiet but acerbic revolutionary conscious at once of the extremes of inequality prevalent in nineteenth century France, and of the humanity of the common people. He belonged to and in many ways exemplified the Romantic revolution, one of whose characteristics was a recognition that “ordinary” individuals were as worthy of study and respect as the aristocrats and idealised religious figures that had largely dominated pictorial art of previous periods.

What struck me at the Daumier exhibition as forcefully as the creative and intellectual vigour of this remarkable artist was the applicability of much of his social and political satire to the UK’s present circumstances. Just as in the France of Louis-Philippe, we too have:
• an upper class with a heredity monarch at its head support by obsequious politicians and a servile, gossip-driven media; • extremes of inequality that have not ceased to grow since Thatcher and her successors enthusiastically chose to deliver the country to the international market.

Daumier was not alone, of course, in using his art for social and political purposes. Artists and thinkers at the barricades were a familiar sight in the nineteenth century: Shelley’s writings were considered seditious; Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables evoked the life of the underprivileged as did Zola’s L’Assommoir and Germinal; Marx gave his name to revolution with pamphlets and newspaper articles as well his longer works; Proudhon in What is Property? answered his own question by concluding that “property is theft”; Dickens honed in on numerous contemporary ills including England’s sclerotic legal system, widespread social deprivation, capitalist corruption and so on; a little later Kropotkin was working on an anarchist proposal for the administration of economic life. Daumier himself earned a spell in jail for pillorying the monarchy. All these were or became opinion shapers who, by their very choice of subject matter, succeeded in engaging their contemporaries and steering them into an uncomfortable contemplation of injustice and poverty.

A long article about the housing crisis by James Meek in the London Review of Books (9 January 2014) suggests why we could do with a few such figures now. Meek opens his piece by introducing the reader to a sixty-year-old retired woman who, having lived for forty years in the same two-bedroom council flat where her husband died is now being forced to contemplate self-eviction because of the government’s notorious “bedroom tax”. Scheduled to lose part of her housing benefit, she must choose between eating and moving to an affordable one-bedroom. She lives in Tower Hamlets where “ten thousand are waiting for a one-bedroom flat….five hundred of whom have been waiting for 12 years or more.” Although such a person cannot be said to own her two-bedroom in the capitalistic sense, by almost every other definition she has surely acquired possession of it. The walls will be decorated to her colours, the shelves and cupboards stocked with what is hers, the furniture and rugs and curtains, moulded to her taste and that of her late partner; from the window the view will be familiar to her; those who live nearby are her neighbours; local shopkeepers know her by name. Her emotions, her memories, her sense of self are invested in the modest apartment from which George Osborne now desires to evict her. John Ruskin - another nineteenth century free-thinker - described the process:
“Whether we force a man’s property from him by pinching his stomach, or pinching his fingers, makes some difference anatomically; - morally none whatsoever: we use a form of torture of some sort in order to make him give up his property; we use, indeed, the man’s own anxieties, instead of the rack; and his immediate peril of starvation, instead of the pistol at his head.” [1]

In the same issue of the LRB, playwright Alan Bennett finds similarities between George Osborne’s rhetoric about the poor and statements “…voiced in the 17th century and thereafter.” . Perhaps Bennett was thinking of that great enlightenment theoretician John Locke who asserted “ ‘Tis not to be expected, that a Man, who drudges on, all his life, in a Laborious Trade, should be more knowing...than a pack horse….” [2]; or maybe that icon of illiberal Tory fundamentalism Edmund Burke who thought it was at once “mad” and “blasphemous” to believe that the “competencies of government” included “supplying to the poor those necessaries which it has pleased the Divine Providence for a while to withhold from them”.[3]

During my visit to the Daumier exhibition, I remarked to a companion that at a time when we seem to me mired in the same kind of inequities of which Daumier was so obviously conscious it was a pity we did not have artists like him - true republicans prepared to challenge both the monarchy and our tired political system. To my surprise I heard around me several murmurs of agreement and none of dissent. Later, I wondered if my off-the-cuff criticism stood up to scrutiny. Certainly we have artists of the other kind - those admired (and handsomely paid) for putting tiny birds on sticks, encrusting skulls with diamonds, and exhibiting nothing - a phenomenon on which I wrote a spoof years before the none event at the Hayward Gallery in London.

But do we have political rebels amongst our artistic luminaries? Any who find in the lives of our people - of the world’s peoples - the lifeblood of their art?

Sculptor Anthony Gormley figures on the 2014 list of those receiving a high-level gong - an accolade of which he apparently approves because gongs ”now … also go to people that have opened people’s minds…” . Well perhaps some folk have had their minds opened by Sir Anthony though I find it hard to imagine to what purpose.

Of one thing we can be sure, given Daumier’s jaundiced representations of royalty, there wouldn’t have been much enthusiasm in Louis-Philippe’s palace for giving him a gong of any kind. Whoever has stood before Daumier’s piquant caricatures, his stark evocations of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, his poignant depictions of the Parisian “lower” classes might, however, conclude that the greatest artists don’t need them. Some of us might also wonder if a decoration conferred on a creative artist by an unelected head of state on the recommendation of a politician might even be considered a bit demeaning, less a mark of honour than one of failure. Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene, JB Priestley - artists who one might consider to be at least as important as Gormley - figure among those who turned down their gongs. Perhaps they didn’t want to belong to a club that included people exalted for their allegiance to political parties or for their dedication to personal enrichment, or who pay a lower tax rate than their cleaners, or who have earned a spell in one of her majesty’s hostelries for criminals. Or did they simply recoil from the embrace of an establishment that many in this country learn by dint of experience to despise?

Doubtless all the names on the News Years Honours list are worthy people; but the list itself, especially at the most elevated levels, is dishonoured by those who have found their way onto it less by the nobleness of their deeds than by the size of their wallet and the quality of their address book For every of one those before whom commoners are expected to genuflect, there will be thousands - tens of thousands - whose service to others and to their nation goes unremarked: the toilers who pass under the radar of the better-off but on whose labours we and the city depend, the brick-layers and carpenters, street-cleaners, shop-assistants, bin men, plumbers, electricians, nurses, fire-fighters, social workers, small entrepreneurs... As George Eliot memorably reminds us in the concluding lines of Middlemarch: ” ... the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

[1] The Work of Iron, 1858

[2] Essay Concerning Human Understanding

[3] Quoted in Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism - A Counter-History, London 2011, p. 37