The governmentality of welfare and the Universal Basic Income

With an ongoing trial in Finland, two councils in Scotland considering the idea, and a Labour Party working group considering whether to make it party policy, the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) seems to be gathering support.

It is of course still subject to a lively and heated debate, with fears being expressed that it may allow firms to keep pay low or cripple state finances with a burden to pay rich and poor alike, among other criticisms

I want to sidestep this debate and explain why I think it is unlikely that a government of a major liberal country such as the UK will ever introduce such a policy. My reasons for making this argument build upon Foucault’s notion of governmentality, the term used to connect his investigations into the practices of government, of how we are governed and of how governments operate.

For Foucault, the purpose of government is to manage what he called ‘the conduct of conducts’, creating subjectivities capable of being governed to the extent that they self-actualise the rules of society. The term ‘subject’ is used by Foucault to capture a double-meaning: these subjects of liberal governmentality are both ‘subject to someone else by control and dependence; and tied to [their] own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge’[1].

Welfare systems play a key role in this liberal governmentality. They do not simply provide a social safety net for persons falling on hard times or incapable of work either temporarily or permanently: rather they are vast machines of governmentality, seeking to construct forms of subjectivity amongst those they process. The aims of this governmentality have changed as governmental rationalities have changed, but it has been present throughout the history of social security: from the ‘new Liberal’ government of the early 20th Century seeking to ensure a populace healthy enough to provide capable soldiers after the struggles to recruit enough sturdy men from the working classes to fight in the Boer Wars, to neoliberal dictums of self-reliance and resilience promoted by contemporary benefit sanctions regimes.

Those dependent upon the state for their means of subsistence are most exposed to these governmental rationalities, but they radiate throughout the social world. This highlights a further flaw in another line of argument about the inevitabilty of a UBI in the wake of greater automation. According to this logic, as more and more jobs are replaced by robots and machines the vast numbers of persons displaced from the world of work will require a basic income to allow them to live without employment. This argument misses the point that economic systems are not merely about the production of resources, goods and services, but that they too are implicated in wider systems of governmentality. Neoliberal capitalism seeks to produce resilient and self-reliant subjects capable of being governed and willing to govern themsevles, as well as generating prosperity and providing for basic needs (something it is, of course, not always successful in).

Governments require mechanism through which to intervene in the lives of populations, mechanisms through which to regulate behaviour and implement the ‘conduct of conducts’.  A UBI would allow ministries such as the Department of Work and Pensions to be radically reduced, as well as limiting the scope of HMRC and the network of job centres around the UK (there are around 700 job centres in the UK, which is just under half the number of police stations). The benefits in terms of reduction of administrative costs, inhumane sanctions regimes and allowing people to take part time or voluntary work without fear of losing benefits may be obvious: but, from the perspective of governmentality, this would mean the removal of a massive instrument for conducting the conduct of the poor, a mechanism for creating liberal subjects out of those who have so far failed in society.

A UBI would therefore disrupt the means of implementing liberal governmentality: but it would also run counter to the purpose of contemporary liberal governmentality. A UBI would remove some aspect of danger from people’s lives by providing regularity, safety and security. This is why liberalism cannot countenance it. Liberalism, as Foucault argued, depends on a culture of danger[2], requiring people to calculate risks, insure themselves against potential failures, take responsibility for the success or failure of their endeavours. This ‘sink or swim’ mentality is part of the subjectivity that neo-liberal welfare seeks to stimulate, inculcating a sense of responsibility by forcing the recipient to earn their benefits and take actions which will allow them to free themselves from the benefits trap by becoming self-sufficient and self-reliant.

Without an alteration in the very meaning and purpose of our liberal governmentality, I therefore think it unlikely that a UBI will be implemented in a country like the UK. But I would be delighted to be proved wrong…

[1] Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’, Critical Inquiry(1982), 8:4, p. 781.

[2] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, trans. Graham Burchell, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), p. 67.


Arrival and the ethics of non-linear time

I’ve just been to seen Arrival, the new slice of cerebral sci-fi from director Denis Villeneuve. Without wishing to give too much of the plot away, it deals with how not only our way of thinking, but our entire perception of reality, is shaped by our linguistic systems. It builds on this premise to ask what might happen to this perception if we are exposed to an alien language that doesn’t rely on linearity to generate meaning. Besides providing the opportunity to indulge in some Bill and Ted-style resolutions playing on the non-linearity of time, this concept allows the film to packs an emotional punch by asking: if you know what the consequences of your decisions will be, would you make those decisions anyway?

This ethical question is wrestled with by linguistic expert Dr Louise Banks, drafted in by the US military to take charge of efforts to communicate with the visitors. While The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw asks why the military commanders in the film did not ‘approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of “deep structure” in language’, I think the film’s understanding of language owes more of a debt to Derrida than it does to Chomsky.

(It might be worth having a **SPOILER ALERT** at this point…)

When Banks quickly asserts that communication with the alien ‘heptapods’ will be made simpler by focusing on written as well as spoken language, she is perhaps channelling Derrida’s understanding of ‘arche-writing’, something which disrupts the supposed hierarchical relationship between speech (as that which embodies ‘presence’) and writing (as that which fills-in for the absence of speech). Tension is also generated in the ambiguity of the word ‘weapon’ uttered by the heptapods. Does ‘weapon’ really mean ‘tool’? Is the knowledge they wish to transfer a gift to humanity, or the curse of foreknowledge? In other words, we have a Derridean undecidable, something that cannot be captured by the logic of either/or, but is ‘Neither/nor, that is, simultaneously either or[1].

And like Derridean undecidability, the linguistic system employed by the heptapods disrupts notions of linear temporality. In my article ‘Deconstructing Dayton’, published earlier this year in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, I wrote that:

The ‘present’ is, according to Derrida, given presence by dividing from itself a past-as-presence and a future-as-presence, thus constituting the linear temporality that structures everyday action and thought. Just as deconstruction can be used to reveal the inherent instability of the hierarchical relations between the binary opposites which structure linguistic and philosophical systems, so can it be used to target our linear temporal assumptions. Derrida offers one potential means for enacting such a temporal deconstruction when he states in ‘The time is out of joint’ that the ‘teleological schema can be applied to everything’ except ‘to that which in it begins by questioning, displacing, and dislocating the machine of this teleology’[2]. In other words, to oppose or overturn systems of thought or action which derive legitimacy from a conception of a beginning, we must begin with a questioning of this beginning, and of the very concept of ‘the beginning’ as such. This form of critique must inhabit the beginning, displace the attempt to derive legitimacy from a conception of beginning, and refute the search for authority in a beginning.

In the article I argued that Derrida’s ideas on temporality can be applied to the post-conflict situation in places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, where specific understandings of the violent past become the fault-lines along which contemporary politics is played out, freezing divisions and turning the political process into ‘war by other means’. In response to this, the article developed an understanding of a ‘deconstructive conclusion’ which can be deployed to

bend time backwards, in the sense of allowing the war to be conceived in different manners. For if the war can be understood as something other than the inevitable clash of fixed ethnic identities, a political system designed to keep these ethnic groups from resuming violence will not be such a necessity. The effects of the ‘conclusion’ of the Dayton system must therefore radiate back to the time before its beginnings, to the years of international engagement during the war, to how the war is understood and to how the term ‘Balkan’ is understood […]

Yet the effects of such a deconstructive conclusion are not limited to one direction on a linear temporal schema: the deconstruction works both ways. As well as showing how the [Dayton Peace Agreement] is dependent upon an ethnic understanding of the war, a deconstructive conclusion must show how the ethnic understanding of the war is given presence in the present through the Dayton political structures. Challenging and overcoming these political structures in the present can therefore allow different understandings of the war to develop. Such an unsettling of linear temporality is central to the deconstructive conclusion that can bring an end to the ethnic divisions enacted through the DPA. Overcoming the blockages which prevent BiH from moving forward will not be achieved through new constitutional agreements made in the present, or through new political constellations which marginalise the nationalist parties and international agencies, but through a reappraisal of the past, a reconfiguration of the past that can undo this aporia and allow the present and future to be reconfigured too.

Our ethical response to war is currently as constrained by our reliance on linear time as the response to the alien visitors in Arrival. The assumption that ‘the past is past’, that it is an unchanging and unreacheable resource from which our present flows, means that divisive and exclusive understandings of the past remain unchallenged, and the manners in which these understandings are constituted through present political posturing remain obscured. Fortunately we don’t need to await the arrival of aliens bearing strange linguistic gifts to realise this. As I argue in relation to Bosnia, deconstruction provides the tools to both reveal the ways linear constructions of temporality constrain our responses to violence, and the tools to challenge it. The task now is to apply this ‘deconstructive conclusion’ to other post-conflict societies, and to figure out if it has anything to say about conflicts currently in progress. Otherwise our tendency to see tools as weapons means we risk returning the gift of deconstruction.

[1] Derrida, Positions, 2004, p. 40.

[2] Derrida, “The Time is Out of Joint”, in Haverkamp, Deconstruction Is/In America, 1995, pp. 30-31.

This is not what democracy looks like

A week after the country went to the polls, the dust from the referendum result steadfastly refuses to settle. The initial economic and constitutional convulsions continue to roll on, leadership ambitions are devouring the Conservative party and Labour seem desperate to do whatever they can to focus attention away from Tory in-fighting and onto their own attempts at self-annihilation.

So much for the great democratic revolution touted by the Leave campaign.

I say that not to suggest, like some, that the referendum result should be ignored, that Parliament should step in to save the British people from themselves, that the result simply shows that the electorate cannot be trusted to answer complicated questions. In short, I don’t think the chaos we are currently immersed in is a result of too much democracy.

Rather, I think the problem remains a lack of democracy: that is the over-riding feeling the experience of this referendum leaves me with. From start to (seemingly) endlessly-deferred finish, democracy has categorically not been at the centre of this process.

As we all know, an in-out referendum was promised by Cameron in a misguided attempt to outmanoeuvre Ukip and his own right-wing. The fact he was then able to call the referendum was due to the perversions of our antiquated electoral system delivering Cameron a Commons majority on 36.9% of the vote (representing less than a quarter of the electorate). So little ‘democracy’ evident in the run-up to the campaign.

Then we have the referendum itself. Without commenting on the quality (or lack thereof) of the campaign, the simple fact of attempting to distil a complex issue into a binary choice, presented as a ‘once in generation’, ‘no going back’ vote is, in my view, a parody of direct democracy. Again, I say this not because I think the public ‘can’t handle’ the complexity of the issue, but that public engagement with politics is distorted and degraded when direct participation is allowed only on such high-stakes, high-pressure occasions.

If more trust was placed in the public’s ability to make decisions, if direct democracy was more diffuse, more widely-used, then we could avoid this situation. If referenda were common place, a series of public votes could have been held to determine our relationship with Europe, treating the issue with the gravity it deserves and valuing the public and their ability to make informed decisions when given the opportunity.

A series of votes on separate issues like the free movement of labour, the single market and the issue of legal sovereignty could have averted the complete vacuum we currently find ourselves in, where no one can even define what ‘Brexit’ (I grimace while I type that odious neologism) would even look like, let alone how it will be achieved. And it may also have averted the perverse situation whereby dissident republicans in Foyle seeking to destabilise the UK in order to fuel their violent campaign for Irish unity voted on the same side as staunch Loyalists in North Antrim seeking to liberate the UK from the tyranny of the EU.

And now, the aftermath. 330 Conservative MPs and around 150,000 party members will decide who our next Prime Minister is, while the 231-strong Parliamentary Labour Party fight to bring down a leader elected by 250,000 party members and supporters. Little democracy here.

When I celebrated my 18th birthday on 15th February 2003 by marching in Belfast against the impending invasion of Iraq, the veteran left-winger (and now recently elected MLA for Foyle) Eamon McCann addressed the crowd outside City Hall with the words ‘this is what democracy looks like, this is what democracy feels like’. I was old and cynical enough to realise that the march, and the thousands other like them, would not avert the relentless drive to war. But I was young and idealistic enough to be charged by McCann’s words.

Now that we have plunged ourselves into a series of crises on the back of the Leave vote, I think more strongly than ever that calling for more democracy, not the sham we have just been presented with, is  the best response: not to pour scorn on the ability of people to make political decisions, but to fight for their further empowerment, for better and more effective forms of democracy (both representative and direct), as the best strategy for avoiding fresh disaster on the back of a seemingly ‘democratic’ votes.

The ‘decade of centenaries’ will only fuel conflict over memory in Northern Ireland while the present remains divided.

Violent attacks on sites of memory in Northern Ireland are nothing new. From the infamous Remembrance Day bombing of 1987 to the vandalisation of memorials in the post-troubles period, the claim to ownership of narratives of the past have been violently asserted on many occassions by the self-appointed guardians of history on both sides of the divide.

But recent violent incidents around the commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising have struck me as particularly depressing, as protesters (in both cases from the dissident IRA-linked 32 County Sovereignty Movement) targeted memorials that, while being mainly located within a republican tradition, attempted to reach out to the other community and promote some sense, no matter how small, of a shared understanding of the past. A mural in west Belfast was attacked because the artists (who had the backing of Sinn Fein) had the temerity to include a depiction of the founding figure of Ulster Unionism Edward Carson, and volunteers of UVF who joined him in his fight against Home Rule. In Dublin, a memorial wall became the site of a protest (leading to the arrest of a 15 year old) because it gave equal weighting to all those who died in the Rising, Irish rebel and British personnel.

We are reaching the mid-point (and you could the high-point) of the ‘decade of centenaries’, marking the key events from 1912-22 which led to the creation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. This violence over commemorations of the Easter Rising, no matter how few people were involved, does not fill me with hope for the ability of the project ‘to promote reconciliation’ by encouraging ‘the marking of forthcoming centenaries in a spirit of mutual respect, and the promotion of understanding’. Events to commemorate the Battle of the Somme this summer may aim to draw attention to the fact that Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and unionists, fought and died together, but the discourse of ‘no surrender’ and the sacrifice of the sons of Ulster for the Union will no doubt dominate in memorial services held in the loyalist heartlands, as the discourse of national liberation and the sacrifice of Padraig Pearse for Irish freedom did in the Easter Rising commemorations.

I do not write this to express surprise at the fact that opposed narratives of history are clashing as different groups in Northern Ireland remember their key events in the ‘decade of centenaries’. The past is always interpreted in the light of the present, is always something shaped and framed by present understandings. This process is most acute in cases where identities are seen as under threat, with history being mined as a resource in order to strengthen claims on belonging in the present. That this is done in partial and selective ways, leading to disagreement over the ‘correct’ way to engage with issues of historical legacy, should not be a surprise. Such a process of is central to the subjective experience of many people in Ireland, people whose sense of history is integral to their identity. It cannot be easily challenged by a deconstructive political ethos, so highlighting the constructed nature of this process of identity formation is not what I wish to do.

What I do think should be highlighted, however, and what should be challenged, is the manner in which the peace process has thus far failed to deliver the shared present that can allow for non-exclusive narratives of the past to develop. Institutionalised division is embedded in the framework of the Stormont administration, resulting in frequent deadlock between the governing parties. The very fact that welfare reform became intermingled over the last number of years with issues of parades, flags and the legacy of ‘the troubles’ is indicative of the distance between the major parties, not just on issues of historical memory but on day-to-day issues affecting the lives of people in Northern Ireland.

While the ‘decade of centenaries’ may have some positive effects in terms of providing opportunities for reappraisals of the past and inclusive commemorative events, it while not provide a panacea for overcoming disagreement about the past while the present (and future) remain divided. While the fault-lines of the conflict are replicated in the political institutions of the country, a shared understanding of the past will not develop. Attacks on shared memorials will remain the pursuit of a violent minority,  but shared memorials will themselves be a minority pursuit, relegated to the peripheries of festivals of remembrance which will continue the mythologisation of violent pasts and exclusive claims to belonging.

Another war for the British Army, and no closer to peace in Syria

I used to wait for my Mum to pick me up from primary school next to a British soldier deployed to Belfast as part of Operation Banner. The British Army have been continuously deployed on offensive duty ever since, and with the RAF currently bombing Syria, a new country can be added to the list of British overseas involvement during my lifetime (the others being Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq again, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq for a third time and fourth time).

The arguments for British involvement in the run-up to Parliamentary authorisation ranged across national security, our duties as an ally and the ability of British involvement to make a difference in the battle against IS/Daesh. I don’t want to quibble on details like the unique technical capabilities that the RAF possess, the number of IS-inspired attacks that have already been foiled or the number of moderate Syrians that may be able carry the fight on the ground, but I think the main issue that has not been resolved in this debate is the outcome that British military action aims to achieve.

The US and a range of its Western and Middle Eastern allies have been bombing Syria since September 2014. According to Airwars, these forces have launched nearly 3,000 airstrikes on Syria (and that is not including the contribution made by Russian bombers). This has clearly not had much effect in terms of defeating IS or ending the Syrian civil war. Adding some British bombs to the mix will hardly make the vital difference, and Cameron has today admitted that the campaign will not be over any time soon.

To argue against the extension of UK operations to Syria is not the same as saying outside military force can never achieve tangible effects in a conflict. The end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) shows that airstrikes can indeed play in role in bringing peace: BUT only when they are part of a concerted diplomatic effort with a definitive idea about what peace would look like, which those doing the bombing are willing to back-up with ground troops to enforce the peace, and when the parties to the conflict are willing to accept a peace deal enforced by outsiders. Unfortunately, none of these conditions appear to exist in the Syrian case.

The maintenance of BiH as a single state, within its 1992 borders but divided into a Serb and a Muslim-Croat entity was (and remains) controversial, but it was a clear and enforceable vision about what a post-war BiH would look like. The US administration were willing to commit the troops needed to enforce such a deal and, as this would entail replacing the 40,000 UN peacekeepers with 60,00 NATO troops, it could not be portrayed as a foreign invasion. The US was willing to negotiate with Milosevic, Izetbegovic and Tudjman, despite the blood on their hands, and with the dynamics of the war shifting against the Serbs throughout 1995, Milosevic was willing to side-line the Bosnian Serb leadership and moderate his initial war aims.

The complexity of the situation in Syria, with so many different factions with competing war aims, supported by so many foreign governments with their own competing war aims, makes the likelihood of a bombing campaign prefiguring the kind of comprehensive peace deal signed at Dayton and ratified in Paris twenty years ago appear highly unlikely. The NATO airstrikes against the Serbs in 1995 lasted one month. The US has been bombing IS for 15 months. With the chances of airpower decisively shifting the balance or provide the impetus for a negotiated peace being so remote, the question we are left is this: what will this latest British overseas military involvement achieve, other than millions of pounds spent, infrastructure destroyed, lives lost, and a political solution to the Syrian war no closer?

Why Cameron wants to take part in airstrikes inside Syria

Over the summer David Cameron and other members of his Conservative government have talked-up the possibility of taking part in the bombing campaign against IS in Syria. UK forces have been operating against the group in Iraq on the invitation of the government there since September 2014, but the less than clear legal situation regarding Syria, combined withthe Commons defeat Cameron suffered in August 2013 over the issue of airstrikes against the Assad regime, has meant they have not yet been active on the other side of the Iraqi border (at least in an official capacity).

Noises from the government suggest that a fresh Commons vote on the authorisation of force against IS in Syria could be taken in September, after the Labour party has elected a new leader (as long as the veteran anti-war campaigner Jeremy Corbyn, who acted as a no teller for the vote authorising force in Iraq last year, doesn’t maintain his current momentum and pull off an unexpected victory).

In Iraq British forces have been responsible for around 5% of all attacks, with the vast majority undertaken by the United States. The same is true in Syria, meaning that the material contribution of UK forces there would likely be extremely limited.Why, then, does the Cameron government want to take part in the airstrikes in Syria?

This could be about the UK’s international prestige and desire to demonstrate commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance, particularly in the light of concerns in the U.S. about the impact of defence spending cuts.

Or we could look to domestic politics for an explanation, perhaps seeing the driving force coming from the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and his desire to protect his department from further deep cuts in the Autumn Spending Review (as noted by Ewen MacAskill).

I think a more convincing explanation comes from the inter-sections between the domestic and the international, from the points at which the international feeds into the domestic and vice versa. This autumn, around the time that a vote on military action in Syria might take place, the government will be publishing a new Counter-Extremism Strategy, which it hopes will provide a framework to combat the growth of violent ideologies within the UK. The timing may be a coincidence, but the two policies are intimately connected.

When speaking about the principles that will inform the Counter-Extremism Strategy last month, Cameron began by describing the ‘threat we face’ in Islamist extremism as ‘an ideology’ that at its furthest end ‘seeks to destroy nation-states to invent its own barbaric realm’. He is clearly here talking about the physical control that IS has gained over areas of Syria and Iraq, and the brutal regime they have enforced there.

But Cameron also focuses on the prevalence of ‘certain intolerant ideas’ within the UK,‘which create a climate in which extremists can flourish’, ideas ‘which are hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality’. He is concerned about the prevalence of these ideas in British schools, British prisons, British communities, and the steady stream of young Britons being convinced by these ideas and travelling to join IS in Syria.

These ideas and their physical manifestation in Syria and Iraq are therefore seen as part of a continuum of extremism, representing the ‘struggle of our generation’ that is providing an ‘existential threat’ to the West. The response, according to Cameron, must involve using ‘our strongest weapon: our own liberal values’.

In his speech last month Cameron said that ‘We can’t expect [British Muslims] to see the power and liberating force of our values if we don’t stand up for them when they come under attack’. In this context he was talking about young Muslim women and female genital mutilation, but the same is true for the attack on ‘our values’ in Tunisia, in Libya, in Syria and in Iraq.

It is in the light of these statements that the desire to join the fight in Syria makes sense. It is not just a question of showing British strength and ability to project power, or a policy informed by parochial domestic concerns. Rather, it is something made necessary by the constitution of British identity as tied up with ‘liberal values’, with ‘British values’ that are fundamentally opposed to the extremist ideology.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I have been able to discover about ‘British values’ is that they were first defined within a definition of extremism. The 2011 Prevent strategy defined extremism as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’, as well as ‘calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas’. This definition-within-a-definition has since been extracted and repeated outside the context of extremism.



And it is still the definition in use by the government. Last month, for instance, Cameron stated:

We are all British. We respect democracy and the rule of law. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith.

We believe in respecting different faiths but also expecting those faiths to support the British way of life. These are British values… underpinned by distinct British institutions. Our freedom comes from our Parliamentary democracy. The rule of law exists because of our independent judiciary. This is the home that we are building together.

Participation in the ‘full spectrum’ of responses against extremism, targeting IS in Syria as well as in Iraq, is essential to maintaining the strength of these ‘British values’. The UK may be only capable of providing a tiny proportion of airpower in Syria, but even the most minimal contribution would provide the necessary supplement to the desire to combat extremism at home through a muscular defence of liberal British values.

But as Jacques Derrida has shown, there are two meanings to the word ‘supplement’. It can be something extra, something additional – in this case, the airstrikes in Syria being in addition to airstrikes in Iraq,in addition to the struggle against extremism at home.

But to supplement can also mean to supplant, to replace. The urge to take part in airstrikes in Syria, the spectacular display of power against a clearly-definable (if difficult to target and defeat) enemy can come to replace the harder, messier and more elusive challenge of combating extremism at home.

But the real lesson to take from Derrida is that the very necessity of a supplement reveals the inherent emptiness of the concept that requires supplementation – in this case the very notion of a definable and defendable ‘British values’. And if the concept of ‘British values’ requires violent action abroad to fulfil its meaning, is it really something worth defending?

Where is the government strategy to prevent violence against women?

Last Monday a clause of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015) came into effect, placing the Prevent Duty Guidance for seven sectors of the public services on a statutory footing. Local authorities, schools, further education, higher education, the health sector, prisons and probation have joined the police in having a legal duty to safeguard persons from radicalisation, be it through challenging the narratives of radical preachers and political ideologues who argue that violence is acceptable, or through tackling exposure to beheading videos or other violent images online that normalises such barbaric behaviour.

The government hope this legislation will stem the flow of British citizens to Syria, and hlep prevent the kind of home-grown terror attacks witnessed recently in Paris and Copenhagen. At least 700 Britons are thought to have travelled to Syria to join IS in the last few years, but fortunately there has not been a violent incident on the British mainland since the murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013.

As well as this legislation, the government is currently engaged in a public and media campaign to change the terms of the debate on radicalisation, with David Cameron urging people to be ‘intolerant of intolerance’ and calling on communities to do more to tackle the extreme ideologies that allow violent ones to emerge (as I discussed in my last blog post).

Even if you don’t agree with the methods (and as someone working in education I have a lot of concerns about the co-option of teaching and support staff into an anti-radicalisation agenda through apparently ‘pre-criminal’ safeguarding), the rationale behind this policy is clear to see. No one wants to continue reading stories about teenage girls leaving their families to join the brutally-murderous IS, and no one wants to see death and destruction on the streets of Britain.

However, there are other ideas and violent images that are prevalent in our society, creating a framework within which violence on a massive scale is perpetrated against Britons. Children are often exposed to violent material online at a young age, and the environment in schools, workplaces and the media all work together to reinforce these messages and make the violence permissible.

I am, of course, talking about violence against women. The web is awash with violent pornography which many children are regularly viewing, sexism is rife in schools and the workplace, sections of the media are imbued with a misogynistic relish, and a pervasive climate of derision and disrespect has been tracked by projects like Everyday Sexism.

The violence this leads to is both extensive in scale and extreme in its consequences. A survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2014 reported that a third of all women had experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15, while 694 women were murdered in the UK between 2011 and 2014, nearly half of them by a current or former partner. Such figures dwarf the violence committed in the name of radicalism, whether inspired by an interpretation of Islam or a far right ideology (both of which are targeted in the Prevent strategy).

Prevention is part of the government policy regarding violence against women, but at times it seems like it is an after-thought, secondary to the main drive to increase the rate of prosecution after such violence has been committed, or taken seriously only as part of the attempt to protect the most vulnerable people in society from abuse and exploitation. These are of course welcome measures and necessary goals, but action to prevent the ubiquitous violence against women should be central to our politics, not an after-thought.

Cameron’s Blame Game

Last Friday David Cameron gave a speech at the Global Security Forum in Bratislava that was widely reported as a warning to British Muslims to do more to combat radicalisation. This provoked the predictable support and opposition from different sections of the media, but nothing I’ve read so far highlights the inherent contradictions in what Cameron said.

Cameron’s speech is directed not just at the issue of radicalisation in the UK, but three ‘extraordinary challenges’ facing Europe, in the shape if ISIL (as he calls them), Russia and migration. He begins by stating that Europe can meet these challenges as long as ‘we stand up’ for the ‘values that have made European nations strong and successful’, values which he lists as ‘democracy, freedom of speech, free enterprise, equality of opportunity, [and] human rights’. The danger, in Cameron’s eyes, come not only from those who pose a direct threat to these values, but from those who do not fully accept this constructed identity, those who would say something different.

In terms of ISIL, this threat to European identity takes the form of young people abandoning their homes to travel to Syria and Iraq. This process, he argues, in the most widely-reported sections of the speech, begins in an environment where such views are normalised by those who ‘hold some of [ISIL’s] views [but] don’t go as far as advocating violence’, from those ‘who do buy into some of these prejudices giving the extreme Islamist narrative weight and telling fellow Muslims, “you are part of this”.

According to Cameron, this ‘paves the way for young people to turn simmering prejudice into murderous intent’, with the reinforcement of ideas coming from something ‘that is quietly condoned online, or perhaps even in parts of your local community’.

Let’s pause at this point. I don’t think it would be an over exaggeration to suggest that Cameron is placing part of the blame for young people turning to ISIL on the failure of the Muslim community in the UK to challenge extreme narratives, and that he is urging the Muslim community to take more responsibility for this. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this point, I think you can accept that Cameron is seeking to apportion some blame on those who could have acted differently in order to prevent young Europeans travelling to Syria and Iraq to join the brutal and murderous IS movement.

As Cameron moves on with the speech, he quickly contradicts this position, by affirming that ‘radicalisation starts with the individual’. Trying to deflect blame by pointing the finger at ‘agencies or authorities’ is wrong, in his view, and indeed ‘dangerous’. So when he talks about the Muslim community in the UK, there is responsibility beyond individual agency: but when he talks about the state’s role, it is ‘wrong’ and ‘dangerous’ to say anything else than ‘the individual is solely to blame’.

Let’s pause again: it seems that Cameron is able to separate state governance from the role of the community in moulding individual action. While communities can be held at least partially responsible, governance structures should not. We can encourage and help the ‘police and intelligence agencies to stop people travelling to Syria’, but that does not mean we can blame them for the fact that people want to go in the first place. Communities can be responsible, but state agencies cannot. Communities shape individuals and can therefore be the root source of threats, but state agencies do not and cannot.

As he brings the speech to its conclusion, Cameron contradicts himself again. He affirms that the security threats emanating from Eastern Europe and the Middle East ‘often have one thing in common: a failure of governance in other countries’. By this point his short-sightedness and double-think is reaching astonishing levels:

It is the failure of governance in African states that leads many to want to leave. It is in part the failure of Libyan governance which has allowed the traffickers to profit from human misery. It was the failure of Ukrainian governance in the years before 2014 which led to discontent and instability. It’s the failure of governance in the Middle East which has left a vacuum within which ISIL can proliferate.

The first blind-spot in Cameron’s analysis is the role that the UK and its allies have played in contributing to any poor governance that exists in these areas, be it through the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank in sub-Saharan Africa, the role of these same institutions in Ukraine’s post-socialist transition straight into a four-year recession, or the violent interventions in Iraq and Libya which destroyed lives and infrastructure.

The second, and perhaps more damning for Cameron’s vision of the world, is the fact that he is able and willing to blame other governments for their failure, without accepting any responsibility for his own government’s failures. In his world the ‘blame game’ involves blaming local communities in the UK and the failures of foreign governance for Europe’s problems, while not accepting that any responsibility rests with his own government.

Cameron’s platitudes about building a ‘national identity’ that ‘young people in our country feel truly part of’ is not enough. If he is so keen to ensure people take responsibility for their actions then he should take responsibility for his own: for the demands he makes on Muslims to pledge their loyalty to an undefined idea of ‘British values’, that could indeed not be defined in anything but an exclusionary manner; and for the essentialised notions of a ‘Muslim community’ his government propagates, requiring surveillance and securitisation.

While he continues to apply the contradictory logic expressed in this speech, Cameron will be unable to recognise that the failure to engage with the Muslim community is a failure, and that speeches like these only serve to contribute to that failure. That is perhaps the most damning indictment of all.

Demystifying elections

There are many reasons to vote tomorrow, and many reasons not to. You may like a candidate standing in your constituency, or you may support certain policies of a party or have an affinity with their leader. Alternatively, you may think that party politics lacks any efficacy in a globalised world, the party you support may have no chance in your constituency or you may live in such a safe seat that voting at all seems pretty pointless.

I will be voting, and voting Labour, because I want a Labour-led government. While there is no chance that my vote will actually make a difference to Labour winning the seat, I’ll be voting because the larger the share of the popular vote they get the more legitimate a Labour-led government will be (and though that shouldn’t really matter in a parliamentary system, all the disingenuous comments by people who should know enough about our politics and history to know better makes me think it might be important).

I want a Labour government because I think they will be better than a Conservative-led government. I think they will stop finding new ways to throw money at people who already have money while squeezing those who don’t. I  appreciate it when Ed Miliband says that he does not offer euphoria after the election but hard-work. I understand that him becoming Prime Minister will not make things miraculously better overnight. There will be no socialist dawn. But in small ways I think things will be better. And personally I hope he can pass a law on three-year tenancies and pegged rent rises before the contract on my flat is up in November…

So that is why I want to vote. But what about people who think things won’t be any better regardless of who wins, who don’t think any of the leaders are decent people, and who don’t even have a reason to vote in their own narrow self-interest? Why should they vote when they believe that politics and democracy should be about more than voting, about more than choosing the lest-worst option from barely-distinguishable non-entities who cannot and will not offer the radical changes we need to reformulate our society on genuinely equitable and communal grounds?

I understand those arguments, but I don’t think they offer any reasons not to vote. Elections are given too much weight and importance in political culture, often in a completely inverse relationship to their actual impact. But the only way that elections will stop being treated as the be-all and end-all of our politics is if participation in them becomes a given, if it is accepted that everyone will engage and cast their vote. It that becomes an accepted reality then the battle for influence and involvement can move on to the spaces in-between elections, when the real decisions about the allocation of resources and authorities are made.

When the very point of elections are questioned and debated then they themselves become the issue. But elections should not be the defining point of our democracy. They should not be treated as a mystical moment when the individual transforms into the citizen, when the world pauses and political destiny turns on the cross of a pen. It should be just another day, just another way in which people participate in their political system. And nothing you do on that day should silence you or give you an excuse not to participate the next day, and the next, and the next…

Witnessing the Undecidable: A deconstructive live football blog

On my way to meet some friends in the pub before heading to Wembley. We’ll no doubt discuss predictions for the game, degrees of certainty may be expressed, or worries about what defeat may mean, but secretly we’ll know that nothing is certain.

Arsenal chants on the train to Wembley. A few Reading fans and some unfortunate people not heading to the football.

I think that whoever runs Wembley doesn’t understand the situation fans are in before the game, facing the ordeal of the undecidable. If they did ‘Wembley Radio’ wouldn’t be blasting out such awful music.


Finely poised so far. Plenty of encouragement for Reading.

Feels like neither side wants to resolve the undecidable. Neither wants to risk defeat. Tentative.

Ozil, Sanchez, goal. Comfort in the familiar chant ‘One-nil to the Arsenal’.

Half time, more awful music but otherwise all good for Arsenal. But we’re still in the depths of the undecidable..

A Reading goal, 1-1, this is the very aporia of the undecidable..

Chants for Giroud before he comes on. Easier to cheer the idea of a player rather than the ones actually on the pitch.

And his first contribution is to miss a good chance from a free kick..

Into the last ten minutes. Reading will be delighted to prolong this for another 30 minutes..

The width of a post from retaking the lead.

The Reading fans cheers the whistle as if they’ve won. Resigned silence from the Arsenal fans.

We shouldn’t still be watching this.

An Arsenal-style calamity for the Reading ‘keeper and we’re back in front. Thank god.



The undecidable is resolved. Until the final..