Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Proudhon His Life And Work - George Woodcock


Is there anything to be learned from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon these days? Is there anything he can teach us? Is he still worth reading? Well, let's read a book about him and see, shall we? Pierre-Joseph Proudhon His Life And Work by George Woodcock. That'll do. First published in 1956.

According to Woodcock, Proudhon was the first man to call himself an anarchist, this being in his first major work, What Is Property?, published in 1840. The term 'anarchist' had been used before but only as an insult and to demonise. Proudhon happily applied it to himself and adhered to it until his dying days.
What Is Property? is the book wherein Proudhon put forward the answer to his question that became the statement for which he would become forever known: Property is theft. But what exactly did he mean by it and has he been misinterpreted? For a better understanding of anything like this, it's always best to just go straight to the source, so to quote Proudhon from the opening passage of What Is Property?:
'If I were asked to answer the following question: "What is slavery?" and I should answer in one word, "Murder!", my meaning would be understood at once. No further argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death, and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: "What is property?" may I not likewise answer, "Theft"?'

According to Woodcock, what Proudhon meant by 'property' was what Proudhon later called 'the sum of its abuses' and what he was denouncing was the property of those who use it to exploit the labour of others without any effort on their own part. Property as distinguished by interest, usury and rent, by the impositions of the non-producer upon the producer.
Regarding the right of a person to control their dwelling and the land and tools needed to work and live, Proudhon had no hostility, deeming it to be a necessary keystone of liberty. His main criticism of the Communists was that they wished to destroy that keystone. For Proudhon, it was clear that neither communism nor property were suited for a just society because communism was the rejection of independence and property was the rejection of equality.

And what exactly is the significance of all this in this day and age, you might ask? Well, it's hugely significant, I would say. Particularly if you're living in London and you're being priced out of the rental market let alone the buyer's market due to an extortionate economy.
Isn't gentrification great? We've seen what it's done to New York and we've seen what it's doing to all the major European cities such as Amsterdam and Paris. And now London where it seems that nowadays you have to be a Russian oligarch to be able to afford to live there. And you can be sure that what happens in London will soon follow in our smaller towns and cities such as Bristol and even Exmouth.
It's coming I tell thee! You're going to be evicted out to the edge of your town or city (if you're not there already?) where you'll scratch out a living on a minimum wage and be expected to be thankful for the privilege.

Proudhon's other big statement was that 'God is evil', meaning God as a sort of freedom-restricting altar to bow down to. No gods and no masters, and all that. His actual declaration is a semantic conundrum but at the end of the day - though using the word 'evil' was probably just a way of causing maximum impact - he wasn't wrong.

Another big idea of his was for the establishment of what he called the 'People's Bank', which though it failed at the time to be implemented in France, came about years later in the form of credit unions and Lets schemes. Credit unions are a good idea but from my experience of Lets schemes, if you offer something useful such as plumbing, plastering, or painting and decorating then you're in big demand and build up a lot of credit. All you get back from most other participants, however, are offers of dog walking, house-sitting, or even cactus plant-sitting... From each according to his ability, I guess?

Proudhon His Life And Work is a badass motherfucker of a book in its turgidity. No bodice ripper, this. Though it must be said that George Woodcock certainly did his homework, poring over Proudhon's diaries and letters it would seem. I applaud him. It's a labour of love and I couldn't have done it. I don't read French for a start.
So, is Proudhon still worth reading? Personally, I'm rather partial to a turgid badass motherfucker of a read every once in a while but what I'd say is that it would probably be better if those of a curious persuasion went to a book that summarised the best of Proudhon rather than Proudhon's own books or George Woodcock's take on him. A kind of 'Winnie The Pooh A-Z Guide To Proudhon'.

It should be said that whilst ploughing through Woodcock's book a few ideas of Proudhon's stood out from the page demanding attention: 'Individuals cannot live on their own - there is no such thing as an isolated being or fact', for one. 'The proletarians are our strength,' another. This being exactly what George Orwell was to repeat many years later with his 'If there is hope, it lies in the proles'.
It was put to Proudhon by some of his contemporaries that he was a 'representative of peasant radicalism', as if this was a criticism - as if it was a bad thing. And yes, Proudhon was from peasant stock and was self-educated but in my eyes this is a good thing. Something that as we all know, hasn't ever been enough of, particularly in this day and age where if you've not been to private school then your ideas and opinions are somehow not worthy or are 'uninformed'.

For all this, the most important declaration Proudhon ever made and the one that he should really be remembered for is 'Whoever puts his hand on me to govern me is an usurper and a tyrant; I declare him my enemy'. A maxim that is as relevant now as it was then. A maxim that if you carry with you through your life then you won't go wrong.
John Serpico
Anarchy on a stamp - for real

Saturday, 7 January 2017

A Riot Of Our Own - Night And Day With The Clash - Johnny Green


There's been a fair few books written about The Clash but none by any of the members themselves. Joe Strummer, of course, has now passed away but there's still Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper. Isn't it about time Mick Jones wrote his autobiography? Could somebody have a word with him, please? Until that happens, however, the closest we've got to the story of The Clash as written from the perspective of the inner sanctum of the band is A Riot Of Our Own - Night And Day With The Clash by Clash road manager Johnny Green.

Johnny first got involved with The Clash in October of 1977 so wasn't actually there from the outset. He had helped transport their music gear over to Ireland for a gig at the start of the Out Of Control tour, and though he was by then already a fan of the band he hadn't at that point actually met any of them.
It was support band Richard Hell and the Voidoids who first offered him a job as a roadie and from there, due to the departure of both The Clash's regular roadie (the legendary Roadent) and their driver, was invited to step in and help out with The Clash. By this time, of course, The Clash train was already in motion going full pelt down the rails but Johnny jumps on board (and starts his story) and soon becomes almost a fifth member of the band; working for them full-time and becoming friend and confidant to all the members.

So what tales, insights and anecdotes from the Punk Wars does Johnny supply us with? Well, as you might hope, quite a few, actually. Firstly, he tells us (though not explicitly) that Joe had issues with identity, credibility and public perception - though we kind of knew that anyway. Mick was a prima donna though in many ways it was encouraged by everyone (Johnny in particular, it would seem) kowtowing to his demands. Paul was always more of an artist than a musician, which is what he eventually became. And Topper could play the drums, thus holding the band together musically but at the same time could also be inexplicably stupid.
There was no single leader of the band though fans thought Joe to be it, whilst Mick Jones presumed he himself was. Each member was integral to the success of the functioning whole though it was only once they had split up that this became clear to them. And by then it was too late.

Johnny tells us about some of the dealings he and the band had with manager Bernie Rhodes though it leaves us none the wiser as to what to make of him. Quite the enigma is Bernie and even Johnny fails to understand what he's about. A clue is given when Johnny visits Bernie’s flat and there being no place to sit due to the stacks of Marxist Internationals in the front room (along with hundreds of copies of the original Capital Radio EP, which was supposed to be a rarity).
Leading up to the the Rock Against Racism carnival of 1978, Bernie chips in by asking Johnny if The Clash members know what they're doing by getting involved with the event? "Do they really want to be knocking about with these student types?" he asks "Isn't it all a bit safe and cosy? Aren't they preaching to the converted? And what's it going to achieve?"
Johnny can't tell if it's a wind-up or does Bernie actually mean what he says? Interestingly, Johnny himself reveals a political naivety about Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League when he asks 'Just whose pole were The Clash tying their flag to? Was there a Left-wing group behind the Anti-Nazi League? Would The Clash be seen to be endorsing their politics?'
Which begs the question: Did Johnny (and The Clash) really not know that the Socialist Workers Party was behind Rock Against Racism and that the Anti-Nazi League was a front?

At a time when all the music press were throwing their weight behind The Clash and declaring them to be The Only Band That Matters, John Peel wasn't very impressed with them and their attitude when they were invited to the BBC studios to record a session for his show. The session was never finished and Peel accused The Clash of being 'unbearably pretentious'.
This was an extremely cutting criticism, made all the more powerful by the fact that it was coming from John Peel. Perhaps this is the reason why Johnny mentions the incident in his book, though he fails to give any real explanation as to why the session was abandoned. Was it simply a case of Mick Jones being a diva again?

For all this, Johnny Green is an amusing storyteller and tells us of such golden moments as when bumping into Lionel Blair after returning to a hotel following Joe and Paul having spent a night in police cells. He's wearing a full-length fur coat, a suntan, wrinkles and a huge cheesy smile.
"Morning, boys!" he says, having clearly heard about the previous night's fighting with bouncers following a Clash gig at the Glasgow Apollo. "Well, that's showbusiness," he smiles. "We're all in it together." As Johnny and the band just stand and stare at him.
And then there's rock god Ted Nugent trying to get backstage at a Clash gig in America because he'd like to jam with them. To Johnny's surprise, Joe agrees but then hands him a pair of scissors. "The band are looking forward to it," Johnny says to Nugent "But could you cut your hair first?" as he reaches for his locks. "The hell - " Nugent says, before storming off.

And then there's actress Vanessa Redgrave regularly calling the band in a bid to get them to play a benefit for the Revolutionary Communist Party. The Specials playing support to The Clash on a tour but having to camp out each night in a big Boy Scout-style tent on the outskirts of every town they're playing because they can't afford hotels. Martin Rev from Clash support band Suicide having his nose broken whilst performing one night by a disgruntled skinhead who's failing to appreciate their art. Topper taking over Sid and Nancy's flat in Maida Vale and having to wash the blood off the bathroom walls that Sid has sprayed with his syringes. Radio 1 DJ Mike Reid putting his arm around Joe's shoulders and congratulating him on getting an Ivor Novello lifetime achievement award: "Well done, well deserved," he says - and this from someone who never once played a Clash record on his show.

All of these tales and many others make for one of the best books written about The Clash. Johnny is clearly in love with the mythology of rock'n'roll and he's perfectly aware that The Clash now also fall into that pantheon of music legends. This, however, leads to the only fault in the book, that being his reluctance to shatter any of The Clash Myths and as we all know, there are quite a few of these.
For sure, he opens up about such things as the tantrums and the cocaine and heroin use but he also shores up walls around The Clash so as to protect The Myth. But then it would be naive to expect anything different because The Myth was erected by band, journalists and fans alike and to what and to whose benefit would it be if Johnny was to tear any of it down? No-one's. Which means that with The Clash, at the end of the day the dream may be over but in a strange way... the dream still remains.

John Serpico

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Politics Of Experience And The Bird Of Paradise - RD Laing


When anything is ever written about Ronald Laing it often seems to be with a prefix of 'controversial' but for many people he was always thought to be talking absolute sense. Absolute common sense, in fact, if such a thing exists?
The Politics Of Experience And The Bird Of Paradise is a collection of essays detailing and expounding upon some of Laing's ideas and thoughts in the fields of psychoanalysis and psychiatry, along with a prose piece tagged on at the end that reads like something that could have leaked from the mind of William Burroughs before being cut up and folded in.

There's a lot going on in Laing's essays, so much so that to simply write up a quick review isn't really sufficient. Rather, a whole thesis is demanded but of course, I'm not about to do that here because this is The Art Of Exmouth not Psychology Today. The bottom line of (some of) what Laing is saying is that the world is an asylum. Reality is an asylum that we're all conditioned into adjusting and adapting to through actual violence, the threat of violence and (more controversially - there's that word again) violence masquerading as love.

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad," as Larkin put it which is what Laing was saying but years earlier and in far greater detail: 'From the moment of birth, when the stone-age baby confronts the twentieth-century mother, the baby is subjected to forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father have been, and their parents and their parents before them. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its potentialities. This enterprise is on the whole successful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves. A half-crazed creature, more or less adjusted to a mad world. This is normality in our present age.'

What is so unsettling is how quickly this process of normalization takes hold and how we come to readily accept things that are inherently problematic. In one instance, Laing describes a woman grinding foodstuff down a goose's neck through a funnel and then asks if this is a description of cruelty to an animal? The woman disclaims any motivation or intention of cruelty so what does that leave us with? What is going on here?
'If an animal is debased to a manufactured piece of produce, a sort of biochemical complex - so that its flesh and organs are simply material that has a certain texture in the mouth (soft, tender, tough), a taste, perhaps a smell - then to describe the animal positively in those terms is to debase oneself by debasing being itself.
A positive description is not 'neutral' or 'objective'. In the case of geese-as-raw-material-for-pate, one can only give a negative description if the description is to remain underpinned by a valid ontology. That is to say, the description moves in the light of what this activity is a brutalization of, a debasement of, a desecration of: namely, the true nature of human beings and of animals.
... Meanwhile Vietnam goes on.'
To bring things more up to date, the normalization of the problematic continues as in the normalization of imposed austerity, the normalization of a sex predator as the President of the United States, the normalization of never-ending war in the Middle East, the normalization of powerlessness in the face of globalisation and the super-rich, and so on and so forth.

On reading some of the reviews of The Politics Of Experience on Goodreads, it's interesting to see how Laing's ideas come as revelations to a lot of people because by now I'd have thought a lot of this stuff such as reality being an asylum is old hat. Apparently it's not.
The thing to ask at this stage in the game, however, is what good does knowing any of this do us? What benefit is there in knowing for example that reality is an asylum? Does it lift a veil from our eyes? Well, to a certain extent yes, it does. It reveals the power structures in place; from parents, the family, society and the State that enforce that reality. It reveals to us that the reality in which we exist is an imposed one that we are all prisoners within.

But it tells us also that another reality is possible. That another reality can be created. And in that tiny straw to be clutched lies hope not only for the individual but for the whole of mankind.
John Serpico