Book Reviews: ‘Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?’, ‘GB84’, & ‘Down With The Fences’

Defending Modernism?

Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? by Frank Furedi, Continuum, 2004

Frank Furedi takes the opportunity in this book to rail against the modern ‘cultural elite’ and their ‘dumbing down’of political, educational and artistic standards.He forcefully argues that an all pervading desire for ‘inclusivity’ leading to the flattery of interest groups – has replaced more hard-headed conceptions of scientific rigour, critical thought and above all, standards, as the driving force for decisionmakers in the modern world. Today, he argues, participation (or the appearance of it) is seen as the key issue, while the role of the ‘intellectual’, as arbiter of taste, independent critical analyst and robust generator of original ideas, has been compromised and diminished.

This is interesting and provocative, particularly as Furedi – currently Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent – is better known as the leading theoretician of the Trotskyist political current which called itself the Revolutionary Communist Party until a few years ago, notable for their annual ‘Preparing For Power’ conferences and their glossily superficial Living Marxism magazine. That his views now seem to have more in common with those routinely expressed in the opinion columns of the Daily Telegraph clearly isn’t something he feels the need to apologise for. Strangely enough, Mick Hume, the erstwhile editor of Living Marxism (or ‘LM’ as it became, in a needless concession to the postmodernist culture and ‘dumbing down’ Furedi now ironically rails against), happens to be a broadsheet columnist spouting similar views to Furedi himself. This does nothing to diminish the prevalent view on the British left that their organisation was a rather bizarre cross between a cult and a sect with a tendency to say anything controversial if it could get them some media attention.

For all that, Furedi’s book is well worth reading. He is a thought-provoking writer and something of a critic of the present ‘postmodern condition’, where everything seemingly has a value of some sort and banality is elevated into an art form, where science and reason are merely another perspective on the world, and where all attempts at fundamentally changing society are doomed to failure, are dangerous – or both. Here he is tilling fertile ground, and his writing is stimulating and energetic.

A large part of the book focuses on the way in which public policy in the major capitalist states is currently using ‘inclusivity’ and ‘widening access’ as bogus ways of enfranchising the disenfranchised, whether it be in political life, the arts, or Higher Education. This involves the recognition and flattery of ‘identities’ (ethnic, gender, sexual, national) and the promotion of the idea that everyone creates even if some of Furedi’s hobby-horses lead him astray periodically.  instance, For the current agenda for ‘widening access and participation’ in HE is little to do with abstract social engineering but the response of successive governments to the demands of the labour market, including the demands of employers for more vocationally-focused university courses and for the creation of intermediate awards like Foundation Degrees. Indeed, this seems an odd point to need to make to someone who has spent most of his life calling himself a Marxist.

Furthermore, even if Furedi is a half-decent sociologist he is certainly not much of an educationalist, as his comments on modern methods of teaching and learning, accreditation of prior learning and other issues tend to show, for here he is unreliable and his approach lacks the type of rigour and engagement with serious study he otherwise insists on. But where Furedi’s book misses the mark most noticeably is in his defence of the ‘intellectual’ as embodying everything that was good about Enlightenment ideals and modernist conceptions of progress. This is a partial, one-sided analysis and it is tempting to suspect that what Furedi really wants to defend is modernism, science and rationality itself against postmodernism, relativism and our seemingly irrational age.

But this has already been done by others quite recently, such as by Francis Wheen, so Furedi has cast around for a new angle that only serves to distort the picture, robbing it of clarity.

Society doesn’t need a new phalanx of intellectuals at all, it needs a reaction against reaction and a confidence that humankind generally can look beyond the fragments of the postmodern condition and collectively work towards a vision of how the world ought to be.

At the Coalface

GB84. by David Peace, Faber and Faber £7.99

The author describes this novel as ‘a fiction based upon a fact’, the fact being the 1984 miners’ strike (on which see the Socialist Standard for March 2004). In a brutally honest style, told from the viewpoints of several different characters, and interspersed with excerpts from the fictional diaries of two striking miners, Peace paints a vivid portrait of the strike and its eventual defeat.

A great deal of research underlies the book, and Peace brings out the extent of the ruling class’ preparations for the strike and their determination to beat the miners into submission. Government fixers and corrupt undercover police are shown doing their dirty work. The divisions and hostilities within mining communities are displayed, and even some working miners are shown in an almost sympathetic light – one says he’d have been on strike had there been a  ballot in favour of strike action. As the strike continues, the NUM become increasingly desperate in attempting to hide their financial assets overseas and out of reach of the government’s stooges, while the Coal Board and the Tories seek to undermine the strike by getting almost all activity in support of it declared illegal and subsidising the back-to-work movement.

There are suggestions that the police ranks are being boosted by soldiers, and the extent of police brutality is made plain. The NUM leaders are depicted as pretty paranoid (though possibly with reason) about being bugged and being infiltrated. ‘The President’ comes over as an increasingly pathetic figure, harking back to his supposed defeat of the Heath government in 1974, and repeating the mantra that support from the wider trade union movement would ensure success. But as the numbers of working miners gradually increase and NUM funds are gradually leached away, he is unable to accept that defeat is ahead, nor that the failure to call a ballot was in any way responsible.

The true heroes and victims, however, are the striking miners and their families. In the face of dreadful financial hardship, media lies, state violence, the threat of blacklisting and the inevitable petty quarrels of people under stress, they struggle to maintain solidarity and to keep the fight going. As families and friendships fall apart, they still remain committed.

David Peace’s novel gives an unforgettable account of a major workingclass struggle, and, despite the complexity of its structure, is well worth reading.

The Commons of South London

Down With The Fences: Battles for the Commons in South London. 36 pages, ú2; Past Tense Publications, c/o 56 Crampton St, London SE14, November 2004.

“The law condemns the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.”

Most of the text of Down With The Fences was the basis of a talk given to the South London Radical History Group. Many of the open spaces in London – commons, woods, greens and parks – exist because they were preserved from development by collective action: by rioting, tearing down .
According to the pamphlet, between the 16th and 19th centuries, much of the open land, commons or woods south of the River Thames in London was enclosed for development, usually by rich landowners, or sold off for house building. Despite its name, the common land was rarely if ever actually land held in common. It was almost always land owned by the Lord of the Manor, on which over time local people had come to exercise some rights. But these rights often had no legal weight; they were just part of an unwritten social contract.

Of the “commoners”, the pamphlet notes that some of them “could become wealthy individuals themselves. Thus later struggles sometimes developed into struggles between different local rich persons. Gradually as capitalism developed, slowly replacing a society of complex vertical social obligations and customs with one based entirely on profit, the impetus was on for landowners to replace traditional land use with intensive agriculture. This demanded the clearing of woodland and the exclusion of the poor from the commons.”

This process did not take place without massive upheavals. The enclosures increased resistance. The pamphlet describes the wave of rebellion for Sydenham Common, and the conflict on Westward Common in Barnes. Richmond Park, Streatham Common, Woolwich Common and South Lambeth Common are also mentioned. As late as the 1860s, there were struggles over access to Wimbledon Common.

By the l850s, reformers were articulating the need for urban parks, to “relieve the stress and overcrowding of the city for the millions (of workers) packed into built-up areas”. It was also hoped that by converting some open spaces and commons into landscaped parks, they would be made respectable “for the aspiring working classes”. For example, “In South London, Battersea Fields, until the 19th century a place of bawdy working class recreation, including animal fairs, stalls, drinking, etc. became Battersea Park. Local vicar Reverend Fallon proposed building of the modern park to encourage the poor to reform and ‘become orderly’.
As part of the process in 1852 all persons ‘trespassing’ on the park with animals or barrows were ordered to be nicked.”
Stockwell Green was used for local recreation, often rowdy, until a local toff bought it and built railings round it. Wandsworth Common, as part of the wastes of the Manor of Battersea and Wandsworth, was largely enclosed and reduced in size, and split in three by the new railway lines the 1840s. The pamphlet mentions numerous other open spaces, commons and parks in southern London, and the various battles and conflicts over their ownership and access. It notes, however, that the struggles described in South London were not unique. Through the 16th to the 19th centuries there were thousands of local battles against the enclosure and development of open spaces. And although not mentioned in the pamphlet, it should be noted here that in a socialist society all the land, and not just commons or parks, would be the common possession of society as a whole.

Leave a Reply