Socialism or Barbarism: Pick One

For those who have followed my “career” over the last twenty years of activism, from making guerrilla documentaries to writing books, you’ll be familiar with some of my areas of focus.

It all largely began with my 2001 return to the U.K. from the U.S. to face the heat of the British system as a university media degree drop-out – put on a welfare-to-work programme at an arts centre, Monday to Friday, 9-to-5, in Tony Blair’s Britain where he was, he claimed, giving me a hand out, not a hand up as part of a New Labour narrative perpetuating poor-bashing and promoting immigrant-bashing. Then came my first job, and the illegal invasion of Iraq, and I was walking out of work to march in the streets in opposition to our taxes being used to bomb another country’s poor people so oil tycoons could get richer from setting our planet on fire.

Coming from a Labour background, I was putting out fires in my own life, too. I wasn’t convinced by the New Labour project at all, I saw it as a departure from what Labour was created to be – democratic socialism, as it states on the party’s membership card – and I was arguing with friends, family, colleagues, and – on the evening of February 15th, 2003, in Croydon – arguing with the stepfather of my girlfriend at the time, having returned home from the historic march in London in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. “So you’re saying it’s better to have Saddam Hussein there?” he shouted at me. “I don’t remember us having an issue with him gassing Kurds when we were shaking his hand and doing business with him,” I replied, only to be met with that tried-and-tested Centrist Dad line, “I’m not talking about the past, I’m talking about the here and now!” You’ll hear that a lot. Context is forbidden for those who want to retain a narrow view of the world.

But of course, the invasion of Iraq proved to be catastrophic, just like the New Labour project itself: after gaining power in 1997 with an electorate sick to the back teeth of Thatcherism and neoliberalism’s lies of “trickle down” economics – and therefore clamouring for significant change – instead New Labour continued along the same neoliberal trajectory, as Paul Blomfield MP admitted in an interview for my documentary Return to Doncatraz. As a result, Labour haemorrhaged five million votes, finally losing power in 2010 after Thatcher herself cited New Labour as her “greatest achievement.” A lot of those I’d been arguing with went quiet.

On my old blog back on February 15th, 2007, I’d suggested a guy named Barack Obama would be a likely Democratic candidate against a Republican opponent of either Mitt Romney or John McCain. But in my book Pissing in the Mainstream, I suggested people take caution and be wary of slogans of “hope” and “change” without anything backing them up. As it turned out, Barack Obama was indeed another slick public relations guy perpetuating the status quo, refusing to introduce universal health care when he had the opportunity to do so, deporting high rates of people, and embarking on high-level bombing campaigns. Even though Obama’s critics called him a socialist, his popularity grew, despite – or perhaps rather because of – such claims. But he turned out to be as much of a capitalist as any of them, didn’t he?

And of course, on May 1st, 2008, I premiered Escape from Doncatraz – a damning indictment of Blair’s Britain – in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, the following day speaking with my recently retired dad over the phone, telling him that he might want to cash in the shares his bank had taken care of for him, as there was likely a financial crisis about to hit later in the year. Despite me pointing out that this was not just my own personal hunch but that people like Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein had even suggested this was a possibility, my dad ignored these ramblings of a radical activist…and lost most of his life savings almost overnight.

Yes, people were sick of capitalism on steroids. But no one was presenting clear arguments for alternatives. As Naomi Klein makes clear in her excellent book No Is Not Enough, as the title suggests, it’s not good enough to express what you’re against; you have to emphasise what you’re for.

And so, Western casino capitalism did what it does best: it relied on the state – the public treasuries – to bail out the bankers who had been gambling with other people’s money. And they got away with it.

The arguments weren’t prepared, movements weren’t organised; Occupy Wall Street was a great start, and would spawn some wonderful initiatives, but it wasn’t enough. Capitalism, the destructive force that it is – making money from labour power, destroying countries, dumping toxic sludge into our rivers, burning rainforests – did not retreat in this crisis; it fed off of it and grew stronger in its virulence. It took these trillions, gave bonuses to the perpetrators, and prepared to do the whole thing over again, while its media owned by such capitalists peddled lies about public services overspending so that – incredibly – they could slash-and-burn even more, and sell off the state to private interests. Yes: capitalism used its own inherent failures to spin and profit off of.

Cuts to public services in Britain, of course, led to the collapse of my career in the community, leaving me in poverty ever since, because jobs that actually helped marginalised groups became few and far between, deemed unnecessary by the Conservatives. It also led to young people panicking about their prospects, anger over police violence, and riots in cities across England. My partner Jane Watkinson and myself were two voices pleading with people to look at the causes, while seemingly everyone else – even those who considered themselves progressive – went along with racist media narratives of this supposed “savagery” by extremely oppressed people of colour expressing anger through violence in response to the violence of economic “austerity.” I can’t even begin to express how disgusting the atmosphere was at this time, and how many commentators and journalists blindly perpetuated some truly dangerous and toxic tropes, even people on Twitter who you’d consider good, reliable folks. It was widespread, and almost unanimous; few of us dared to try and understand the riots and its triggers.

But still, while people like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour have now formed intelligent, reasonable, rational responses to capitalism’s destructive nature, the Conservatives have offered nothing but more of the same – the perpetuation of this capitalism that makes money from misery. Even now, after nearly a decade in power, they have the unmitigated impudence to declare “Britain deserves better!” To paraphrase the late great Bill Hicks, “Yes, because of you, you f***ers!”

In The Assassination of Richard Nixon, a brave post-9/11 film that dared to examine the capitalist system’s responsibility in picking away at a man’s life until he finally snaps, there’s a scene where the capitalist boss in Nixon’s United States cites the supposedly brilliant salesmanship of the President himself getting re-elected, as a cynical, soulless example of how to succeed: “He made us a promise. He didn’t deliver. Then he sold us on the exact same promise and he got elected again.” This is why – while Theresa May, in the absence of valid policies, made the mistake of parroting phrases like “strong and stable” – current Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson avoids answering questions on policy by repeating that policies are seemingly irrelevant until we “get Brexit done.”

Boris Johnson is a vile bigot who calls angry yet peaceful protesters “lefty tossers” without media scrutiny, appears to be a compulsive liar, and refuses to apologise for his bigotry as some sort of strategy to adopt the Trump technique of appealing to a fascist base.

“The spell of neoliberalism has been broken,” wrote Naomi Klein in No Is Not Enough, “crushed under the weight of lived experience and a mountain of evidence.” Capitalism knows that its credibility and popularity, even amongst its own devout followers, is largely gone. You see it with the democratic socialist movements around the world, from Lula in Brazil to Bernie Sanders in the United States, and yes, to Jeremy Corbyn here in Britain. And what has capitalism reverted to in all those cases? Authoritarianism – fascistic leaders who will shield capitalism from the people, at any and all costs. Capitalism prefers to use manipulations, lies, and even smokescreens like Brexit to survive, but if it is truly threatened, it knows it can rely on out-and-out fascists to protect it from democratic socialist alternatives if need be. Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in the States, and Johnson in Britain represent this shield. They will use whatever tactics they can to distract people, but again, if need be they will not hesitate on passing draconian laws, or using teargas on people, and throwing them in high-security facilities. History teaches us this; it’s an old trick. Nazi Germany didn’t begin with concentration camps – it ended that way.

But we must have faith. There is something much bigger going on here. What is it really about? As Bernie Sanders likes to remind the people gathered at his massive rallies, “Not me, us.” This is a movement.

Once again, I was banging my head against a wall in a lot of cases back in 2016. People were sick and tired of being led down by careerist public relations politicos and wanted drastic change from the status quo in the United States, just like most places. Even the polls showed that Bernie Sanders would provide such a credible alternative and beat Donald Trump. The capitalists in the ironically-named Democratic Party made sure Hillary Clinton was their candidate, and the rest is history; today, there’s a white supremacist son of a Klansman in the White House.

In 2017, against the best Conservative result in three decades – and the entire establishment and corporate media – Jeremy Corbyn increased Labour’s vote share more than any of the party’s leaders since 1945, and left the Tories clinging to power by essentially bribing the DUP to prop them up.

“What for decades was unsayable is now being said out loud by candidates who win millions of votes,” wrote Naomi Klein in No Is Not Enough. “Free college tuition, double the minimum wage, 100 percent renewable energy as quickly as technology allows, demilitarise the police, prisons are no place for young people, refugees are welcome here, war makes us all less safe. And the crowds are roaring their agreement.”

Capitalism has taken and taken and taken. More profits means more deregulation, more labour exploitation, more pollution, more climate chaos, more displacement, more prisons – all of which in turn means more profits. It knows only one way, and nothing will stand to block its path. To capitalism, bigger is better, and at any cost. It needs endless growth. Burn the Amazon to make more money? Go for it. Whatever it takes. No matter the barbarism of its effects, capitalists set to benefit from it in the short-term are prepared to stand up for it, and protect it – by any means necessary.

Capitalism can never be satisfied; it only knows eternal growth, and as economist Kate Raworth frequently discusses, something that continues to grow, continues to destroy, has to be acknowledged as what it is: a cancer.

Capitalism can’t be controlled, it can’t be re-imagined, it can’t be tweaked or adjusted. It must be stopped; finished. It needs replacing, and fast. The future of the planet and life on it is at stake. Capitalism’s endgame is authoritarianism – because it is designed to keep going, to keep growing, it won’t end naturally, and the capitalists themselves will ringfence themselves off from the upheaval, chaos, and suffering for as long as possible, until there’s nothing left. They’ll just make sure they’re the last to go. We’ll be in harm’s way, not them.

Yes, this is capitalism’s last stand: it will surround itself with a shield made up of billionaires, corporate media, and foot soldiers in the streets. But the mass movements against it may prove too powerful. We just still barely have enough time before it’s too late. Elections are crucial, but as we’ve seen, narratives are even more important. The culture is changing. Capitalism ain’t cool. Regardless of each election outcome, it’s time to organise, to strike, to protest, to demonstrate, to march, to meet, to talk, to read. It’s time to exchange ideas, and put them into action. There is an alternative. And the capitalist class know it. They’re terrified like never before.

So what next? Will I be writing my next blog post instead in analogue format, on toilet paper in a camp somewhere? Or will democratic socialism turn around our global fortunes?

It’s up to you.

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