State of the World

I was in the Little Bookshop in Oxford’s Covered Market earlier today, looking for the usual left-wing books that I tend to buy when I think I have spare cash, and I found a secondhand copy of the The State of the World Atlas, first edition, 1981, on sale for £1.50, edited my Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal. I bought it without hesitation: a bargain.

After a gap of many years, I began thinking about this book again after reading Franco Moretti’s marvellous Atlas of the European Novel last year, another book which uses imaginative maps in a creative way to make very serious points. Then I found myself wondering just how implicated The State of the World Atlas and its successor volumes — including at least one edition of The War Atlas — are in the decade-plus-long process of my political opinions shifting ever leftwards, from 1988 or so to the present.

I think that I must have been given a copy of the book in 1982 or 1983, not too long after it was first published. It must have been before 1984, as that was when The New State of the World Atlas was released, and we had a copy of that, too, though not, I think, any of the successor volumes published in 1987, 1991 or 1995 (though I did have a copy of the 1985 State of the Nation Atlas, an altogether less interesting book in the same vein).

For when I started reading the Atlas, aged nine or so, I loved it. I was interested by the different ways in which the maps were drawn and coloured, in order to present different kinds of information on any number of subjects. At first I looked at the images; it was a couple of years at least before I began reading the small print in the endnotes at all carefully, and finding out what the sources of the information presented were, and it was many years later that I would have come to the conscious realisation that the people who put together this wonderful volume were very left-wing indeed, and that the Atlas was a first-rate piece of entirely admirable and (in my case) terribly effective propaganda.

The Atlas did many things. It taught me that the UNESCO-backed Peters projection of the face of the globe was a horrible distortion on page one. By the time we get to maps 7 to 12, I was being taught something about military conflict in the world, about the arms industry, and about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Map 24 displayed patterns of international indebtedness; map 37 introduced me to the idea of a tax haven; maps 53 and 54 to the extent of the pollution of the face of the earth. Flipping through the book’s pages tonight, I am reminded of just how much my opinions about the state of the world are stuck in a 1981 timewarp, because of the powerful impression this book made on me at the time.

It is at the end of the book that the political agenda becomes most apparent. Some of the maps seem dated: map 56 is of “The First Inflationary Crest”, and graphically displays the various national inflation rates of 1974. Others seem prescient: map 62 depicts “Russia’s Ununited Republics” and emphasises the strains of ethnic and national politics in what we can now – but not then – call the former Soviet Union. And the book closes with maps showing changing abortion laws, and patterns of 1960s student protest and 1970s urban insurrections. The significance of these meant absolutely nothing to me in 1982-3, nor for a time afterwards — but I know that I pored over these pages and that something from them entered into my soul.

In the last few years, there have been a few tenth anniversaries to get used to. People my age tend to think they are too young to have to have the feeling that something they remember happened a decade ago, but it crops up too often to be ignored. I can remember newspaper articles from 1988, the revolutions of 1989, the resignation of Mrs Thatcher in 1990, all as if they took place yesterday. The State of the World Atlas is now twenty years old for me, a rather alarming thought, but twenty years later it remains a wonderful, wonderful book, and it is delightful to remake its acquaintance again, after a gap of so many years.

Student Politics

Kevin Hind, of Pembroke College, has just sent this message around:

Dear all, I had this idea the other day of setting up a Radical Society in Oxford University. Oxford Brookes has a Radical Alliance, but I thought it would be a good idea to set up an anti-Capitalist debating society in Oxford Uni as there are lots of groups who seem interested in coming along. I have been in contact with Amnesty International, Green Party, Drop the Debt and People and Planet. I have sent e-mails to O.G.A., S.W.S.S. and the Labour Club. If you think this is a crap idea please tell me, but I want to encourage high-profile debate on anti-Capitalism. I thought about inviting a famous person at the first meeting which would take place next term. I had in mind Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, George Monbiot or Naomi Klein. Please tell me what you think, yours, Kevin Hind.

I’ve never met Kevin Hind, but thinking about this was more interesting than spending Sunday afternoon marking students’ essays, so I sent him this reply:

I’m not sure we’ve met (have we?) nor am I quite sure how I ended up on this Globalise Resistance list (don’t worry: I’m happy to be here), but I wanted to say hi, and that you should forward this message to your GR list if you think it would be helpful in provoking discussion.

I don’t think yours is a crap idea at all. But there’s historical precedent for thinking that you should proceed with caution, and that a Radical Society or equivalent might not work especially well in this University.

In 1993 a group called the “University Left Forum” — of which I was a part — came into existence. 1993 was a good moment for this kind of thing: leftists were disappointed with the election result the previous year; the events of Autumn 1992 (the pit closures and Black Wednesday, especially) made the Right extremely unpopular, and Tony Blair hadn’t yet become leader of the Labour Party and alienated the support of young people by, e.g., imposing tuition fees. The University Left Forum was supposed to be a non-sectarian group of friendly-minded left people who would get together for occasional “debates” with “high-profile” speakers (sound familiar?). And I don’t think I’m making an especially controversial claim when I say that it didn’t really work, and didn’t last an especially long time.

Its meeting of 21 May 1993 got a decent audience, and was addressed by Paul Boateng (then in opposition, so a more credible left figure than he is now) and Yvonne Roberts (with, I think, Kitty Kelley in attendance!) — but apart from lending the name to “sponsoring” various other things around town, I’m not sure the Left Forum ever did much. Its “steering group” meetings provided an opportunity for a couple of people who might not otherwise have met to hook up and start going out with one another, but in political terms, I don’t think the people who went along to those meetings thought that they ever achieved as much politically as they were meant to.

Why not?

There were personality clashes, and a rather obvious split between what we might call an Old Left and a women’s/rainbow/diversity/new-social-movements crowd. But I think the key problem was this: that genuinely ecumenical umbrella groups require input from several people coming from different groups, but most of the kinds of people who would be interested are already putting their organisational energies into their favourite causes and preferred organisations. At Left Forum meetings, it was clear that A was “the person from OUSU”, B was “the person from the Socialist Workers”, C was “the person from Amazon”, D was “the person from New College JCR”, and so on, and that this remained the focus of their primary loyalty. When everyone was slightly over-committed already, no one much wanted to spend their evenings doing boring University Left Forum work. (And, on the other hand, had anyone in particular volunteered to run the thing and do most of the work, it would have much more quickly become that person’s particular thing, and would have lost the ecumenical and genuinely democratic character to which it aspired.)

Three other structural problems, I think, also lurk in the background for any group of this kind:

First, mostly but not entirely because of the existence of the Union, which distorts the market for political discussion meetings, it is the case that Oxford already gets stackloads of high profile speakers, so they aren’t the lure they are in other contexts and on other campuses.

Second, that there’s no day of the week you can pick to hold meetings on which won’t piss off at least one medium-sized Oxford progressive organisation which holds its meetings on that day. (When we made the decision to hold my Corporate Power and Political Philosophy discussion group on Tuesday, people told me that that meant people from “People and Planet” couldn’t come, and the Labour Club has since started doing weekly canvassing trips on Tuesdays, too).

Third, that people who are Quite Active aren’t necessarily keen to go to more meetings than they already do. If people go to two club-and-society meetings a week, that’s probably because that’s all they are willing to go to, and want to save the rest of their time for drinking, working, pretending to work, having sex, listening to music, wasting time, whatever else they like to do with their evenings. Some people will go to anything at all — but do you want them to be your main audience for a “Radical Society”?

This isn’t meant to be negative criticism: just a warning, to help you think about how to avoid the errors of the past. All you need is a good Plan — but you do need a good plan, which manages to be the product of genuine collective deliberation without running aground on the kinds of problems listed above.

But I’ll end this message, as all leftwing tracts should, on an upbeat – though self-serving – note. One institution survives from this 1993 moment of Oxford Left Unity. The Left Forum never launched the publication it thought it wanted to organise, but Ben Fender of the Oxford University Fabians did begin to produce and circulate around the University a pamphlet series called “The Voice of the Turtle”, which had its first two issues in that same Trinity Term of 1993, with six in all over the period 1993-5. After a period of hibernation following graduation, Raj Patel (also at Oxford 1992-5) and I revived the title in 1998 and launched it onto the worldwide web, where it now lives at and operates on a thoroughly global scale, still committed to the same ULF values of ecumenical anti-capitalist radicalism. (An odd twist, perhaps, on the conventional wisdom: we originally thought locally and have ended up acting globally…) And, yes, fresh contributions are always welcome…

Avanti popolo, etc.

Thoughts? Comments? Disagreements?

General Election

From Nick Cohen in today’s Observer:

“I’ve never liked the slogan ‘the personal is political’: it implies egotism and a narrowing of horizons and solidarities. But the cop-outs of reluctant Blair supporters – ‘he’ll get better’, ‘he’ll come to respect us’, ‘there is no alternative’ – resemble nothing so much as the excuses battered wives make for their abusers. …

If you vote for Blair you will also be lending your good name to the curtailment of the right to trial by jury, the turning of demonstrators into ‘terrorists’, the persecution of asylum-seekers, the imposition of tuition fees, the incessant manipulation of the media, the rigging of elections, the refusal to renationalise the railways, the abasement before corporate interests. I thought myself pretty cynical on 1 May 1997, but if a stranger had told me that this would be the record New Labour would be defending at the next election, I would have dismissed him as a raving fantasist.”

Does any good reason remain for voting for New Labour candidates at the forthcoming election? It is true — of course it is true — that a Hague government would be worse than a Blair government. It would be much worse. But since there is no possibility of the electorate sending Mr Hague to Downing Street, the “You Must Vote Labour To Stop The Tories Getting In” approach — which still had some bite in 1997 — is entirely unpersuasive. And the more votes Mr Blair’s candidates get, the more he will think he has a “mandate” for his new round of “radical” (i.e. right-wing) reform. If anyone thinks they do have good reason for voting New Labour, do pass it along.

Alec wrote [4.6.01]: Be careful of being too complacent about what is at stake on Thursday.

A lot of Labour Party supporters, perhaps unhappy about the right-wing policies being persued by sucessive Labour Governments, would have thought this about Mrs Thatcher in the second half of the 1970s. The British electorate, let’s face it, does have a record of sending ghastly, xenophobic right-wingers into office – we shouldn’t forget this, despite the mess in which today’s Conservative Party finds itself. Voting for (and campaigning for) the Labour Party still represents the most effective way of fighting against those values, and fighting for: greater tolerance, an end to poverty, rights at work, sustained investment in public services, a sensible apprach to the European Union, protection of the environment, tackling third world debt, etc etc etc

And just think of this: Voting for minor parties instead of Labour in Labour seats helps the Tories. Every seat won by the Tories means one more Tory in Parliament. If the Conservatives do well on election day and take back some Labour seats, isn’t there a danger that this might be seen as a demand by the British public for: even tougher policy on asylum seekers, limiting public spending, and a more isolated position in Europe? In other words, every vote really does count – in view of this risk, the Left should unite behind Labour on June 7th.

I’m sure you’ll disagree, and this is yet another manifestation of my right-wing fervour, as alleged by the Exeter Socialist Alliance. Still, there it is.