We have a big-time radical publishing crush on Zero Books. When we saw that they had an event at the People’s Parliament, we went down mob-handed – no fewer than three of the panel have had articles featured in STRIKE! (Rhian E Jones, Mark Fisher and JD Taylor), so it was always going to be an excellent evening.
And we weren’t wrong; this report is by David Charles…
The People’s Parliament is defiantly held in the least democratic building in the United Kingdom: the Houses of Parliament. Every Gothic gargoyle, every vaulted ceiling and marbled floor, every gun-toting copper screams totalitarianism. My local Territorial Army base is more democratic than the Houses of Parliament. Never mind. Our parliamentary host, John McDonnell MP, flaps his hands in despair at the larger-than-life oil paintings of dead monarchs around him, glad that this feudal building is being used “for something worthwhile, for a change.”
We’re gathered here this Budget Day evening in Committee Room 8 with a roster of Zero Books authors to answer two lofty questions: How has capitalism got away with the financial crisis and why is politics scared of political ideas? I don’t think they mean dropping the Bingo Tax.
Tariq Goddard founded Zero Books in 2007, when capitalism seemed “unassailable” and the publishing industry was “impenetrable”. At the time, Tariq saw Zero as nothing more than a “romantic gesture”, but then the crash came and Zero were able to capitalise (excuse the pun) on the Left’s failure to take the political initiative and the publishing industry’s increasing obsession with celebrity cookbooks. Now Zero are turning their attention from publishing “dangerous and destructive” ideas to practical engagement. “We have something to offer politics,” Tariq says. “But I think politics has something we need as well: how to implement ideas and make them work to practice.”
Rhian Jones, author of Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender, accuses the Conservatives of pushing austerity as a “new normal”, switching the blame for the crash from the bankers to “scroungers” and justifying cuts by blowing up another housing bubble to manufacture ersatz economic growth. Meanwhile, why has opposition to austerity come almost entirely from outside parliament? For Rhian, the Left desperately needs an answer to the question: What kind of organisational framework can we create to support opposition to austerity?
Dan Taylor, author of Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era, replies by saying that we need a new kind of parliamentary democracy altogether. “Our parliament is a sham,” he says, “It’s failed to respond to the crises of the past few years. It’s done nothing to prevent another banking crisis, nor punished those who caused the first.” Dan wants to get militant. “Unpopular politicians are, to my mind, democratically illegitimate,” he argues, all but thumping his tub. “We need to start a fight for a new kind of parliament, one without political parties, one without jeering public school boys, without the risk of major party donors who take state decisions – a parliament for the people, made up of people from all walks of life.”
Alex Niven, author of Folk Opposition, takes a different tack, going back to class roots. “This is a moment of division,” he says, “a moment when that alliance between intellectual and working class culture is pretty much non-existent.” Alex uses football, “a barometer of the working class”, as a case study to look at the fragile state of this alliance. The twenty-five year campaign over the police, media and political cover-up of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster should have been “a massive cause for the London Left to get behind,” Alex says. “But, shockingly, there was a deafening silence from the intellectual Left.” Alex does see hope for the alliance, however, in the form of Football Supporters Trusts: “union-style organisations set up more or less spontaneously at a grass-roots level to directly oppose capitalist exploitation”. These trusts put football on the front line of contemporary politics and this organised working class opposition to capitalism, founded on popular culture and enabled by an institutional framework created by the Labour party, is one way we might start to re-organise the Left.
Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, laments the recent deaths of Tony Benn and Stuart Hall. The failure of their political projects mean that there’s a whole generation who have grown up without any sense of a worthwhile parliament. “Today, there is unprecedentedly low levels of class consciousness and no sense of political representation,” Mark says. “Things have got progressively worse and worse, to the point where, when the Blair government came in, they were, in most ways, to the right of Thatcher.” But we must not give up on politics; despondency only plays into the hands of the capitalists. “If we want to defend the NHS, we still have to defend it through parliamentary democracy,” Mark says. Otherwise the right will take both for themselves.
John McDonnell started these People’s Parliaments when he was in the old Greater London Council. Their motto back then was “In and against the state” (which was probably why it was abolished by Thatcher in 1986). But the People’s Parliament is back, with public debates in the House of Commons running up to the General Election in 2015. Get yourself down there, get yourself riled up and angry, get yourself political. John McDonnell MP isn’t joking when he says that the most important job he does these days is booking rooms in the House of Commons, inviting the public through these undemocratic doors, giving people the confidence to fight back and asking: “What do you want to replace this system?”